Chelsea Manning’s Fight Against the Grand Jury Exposes Battle for Free Speech

The former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was sent to jail Friday for refusing to answer questions relating to WikiLeaks 2010 disclosures at a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia. She has been remanded into federal custody and is made to remain confined until she testifies or until the end of the life of the grand jury.

Manning, 31 was convicted in 2013 of releasing the largest trove of state secrets in US history, revealing Bush era’s war crimes. She served seven years of a 35-year sentence until President Barack Obama commuted her sentence just before leaving his office in 2017.

On March 5, Manning, a network security expert, appeared in Alexandria federal court to fight the subpoena requiring her to testify before a federal grand jury. Outside the courthouse after an hour-long closed-door hearing where the judge rejected her motion to quash the subpoena, she spoke to activists and reporters stating her principle opposition to the grand jury system was that it is shrouded in secrecy.

Manning’s subpoena came about three months after prosecutors, from a copy and paste error, revealed the US government’s sealed indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The secret criminal charges, whose existence was made known inadvertently in November last year, have been originally filled in the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. In January this year, a U.S. federal judge ruled against the petition filed by the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press that demands the government to unseal that criminal complaint.

Assange attained political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 to mitigate the risk of extradition to the US, relating to his publishing activities with WikiLeaks. He remains being arbitrarily detained by the UK government in violation of two UN rulings, denied access to medical treatment, fresh air, sunlight and adequate space to exercise.

Manning’s fight against this grand jury subpoena, further brings out the US government’s assault on the free press. Now, whistleblowers are forced to testify against journalists at a secret trial and those who refuse to cooperate will be sent to jail.

Given the secrecy of federal grand jury procedures, parameters of questions that prosecutors intend to ask the WikiLeaks source is not entirely clear. Manning, after her appearance in the court Tuesday, noted the presence of many government attorneys in the room. The case appears to be part of the Trump administration’s efforts to prosecute Assange.

A Grand Jury investigation of WikiLeaks has been active since late 2010, when US Attorney General, Eric Holder at a news conference publicly confirmed it. Since then, this criminal investigation into WikiLeaks and Assange has been ongoing. The late Michael Ratner, attorney and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights who attended Manning’s pretrial hearing in 2013 spoke about the significance of her testimony in putting "WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the same place that The New York Times would be or The Guardian." He noted there were two of the prosecuting attorneys for the grand jury during Manning’s court martial.

The Washington Post recently confirmed through information obtained by US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity that the case of this grand jury is based on the Manning disclosures era, that is to say not based on material relating to 2016 Presidential election, and it has nothing to with US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.

The New York Times that first broke the story of Manning vowing to refuse to give testimony at the grand jury, reported that the former US soldier wondered if prosecutors now wanted to try to get her to back away from the account she made during her court-martial.

In a statement she released a day before her contempt hearing for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury, Manning expressed her determination for a continuous fight against this government repression:

"Yesterday, I appeared before a secret grand jury after being given immunity for my testimony. All of the substantive questions pertained to my disclosures of information to the public in 2010 – answers I provided in extensive testimony during my court-martial in 2013. I responded to each question with the following statement: I object to the question and refuse to answer on the grounds that the question is in violation of my First, Fourth, and Six Amendment, and other statutory rights."

She then noted she would stand by her principles and is prepared to face imprisonment as consequences of her refusing to testify before the secret grand jury.

During her court-martial, Manning stated her decisions to send classified government documents to the whistleblowing website was motivated by her conscience. She made it clear that it was her sense of moral duty to inform the American public, that made her release documents about US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and torture in Guantanamo, along with US diplomatic cables that sparked a global crisis of legitimacy. In her testimony, she said no one pressured her to do what she has done and that she takes full responsibility for her actions.

Manning’s testimony highlighted WikiLeaks’ extraordinary source protection that is unprecedented in a history of modern journalism. With its innovative technical infrastructure, WikiLeaks built a system that enables the anonymity of sources, where Assange or any other staff would never be able to know their identities in the first place. Along with its pristine record for accuracy, the organization has never failed to protect the identity of its sources.

The identity of Manning as a source behind WikiLeaks’ published documents only became public, due to her failure to follow the whistleblowing site’s security instructions. Manning spoke to a computer hacker she met online, who turned her into law enforcement and the Wired Magazine published the chat logs.

For this young American whistleblower who was deeply disturbed by "blood lust" displayed by the US military in the video footage from a US Apache helicopter in 2007, WikiLeaks was the publisher of her last resort. Manning first approached The Washington Post and The New York Times with documents that would reveal the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After she was not taken seriously by these news organizations, she went to WikiLeaks.

When other media outlets turned away from critical material that provided evidence of the US government’s war crimes, killing by the US of Iraq civilians including two Reuters journalists, and their subsequent cover-ups, WikiLeaks, through their publication, courageously defended the public’s right to know.

As a consequence of exposing unaccounted power, the organization has met political retaliation under the Obama administration. Assange has become a political prisoner, been gagged and isolated by the President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno who bowed down to demands of Washington in exchange for an International Monetary Fund bailout. Now he is hunted down by Trump’s cabinet that is eager to extradite him to the US.

Prosecuting a non-American journalist who published information in the public interest outside of the US, working with other media organizations, possibly under the Espionage Act would set a perilous precedent for press freedom around the world. Now, the Department of Justice forcing an alleged source to testify against the journalist for publishing government’s wrongdoing is hugely alarming.

Recognizing its threat on democracy, leading human rights organizations and civil liberty groups have denounced the US government’s unprecedented prosecution of WikiLeaks founder. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ACLU, all opposed Assange’s extradition. Recently, the city of Geneva passed a resolution that proposes to grant this award-winning journalist and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee an asylum. In the UK and other European states, this year alone 36 MEPs and MPs demanded UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UK Prime Minister Theresa May to end his arbitrary detention.

After she was sentenced to 35 years in prison by a military court, Manning said in her statement, "Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society." Manning risked her life to bring back information that belongs to the public. By refusing to give testimony at a secret grand jury, she now once again sacrificed her liberty and defended the public’s right to know. She launched a campaign to raise funds for her legal defense. After being taken into custody, she stated that she would continue to fight against a secret court that is used to "entrap and prosecute activists for protected political speech."

This courage that is now brought back to the court reminds us of a battle that we are all engaged in. The fight for free speech began with this person of incredible conscience. It all started with a tiny voice inside individuals that call them to act in search of moral clarity. Inspired by the source who takes enormous risk to bring social change, WikiLeaks entered into the frontline of this battle, providing a shield for this conscience and letting its voice speak loud and clear.

Now, the force that destroys our fundamental democratic rights is no longer secret. The government’s assault on press freedom is an attempt to squash the conscience of ordinary people that want to be free. We must stand with Chelsea Manning to resist this secret grand jury. Only through informed citizens around the world standing up for justice in a court of public opinion, can we end this government’s relentless prosecution of free speech. We must fight and continue to shine the light on government secrecy, for democracy dies in darkness.

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency, and decentralized movements. Her work is featured in many publications. Find her on twitter @nozomimagine.