When a federal judge ordered the release of Chelsea Manning from prison on March 12th, the news was met with relatively little fanfare. There was a kind of muted, matter-of-factness about it in the mainstream press, with much of the print devoted to procedural aspects of the release, or the fact that Ms. Manning allegedly tried to kill herself the day before, based on her lawyers’ testimony.
The most important discussion, which seems to only be taking place in the remotest fringes of cyberspace, is acknowledging the incredible courage, conscience, and resilience that Chelsea Manning has displayed during the entire harrowing ordeal. Her principled efforts, as we will discuss further, serve as a model for the rest of us who are truly seeking to liberate the planet from tyranny and enslavement
What Manning Actually Did
In 2010, then-Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 22-year old Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, sent hundreds of thousands of classified files to WikiLeaks. These files consisted of documents such as State Department cables, and videos, among them the famous “Collateral Murder” video which showed the US army killing a dozen unarmed civilians, including two Reuters employees.
In an online chat attributed to Manning, she wrote the following regarding her decision to release the files:
If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?
God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public. (source)
Manning witnessed multiple actions that were inhumane on the part of her own military and government. Manning sacrificed her own safety and well-being so that people could know the truth, and hoped the revelations would spark public outcry and lead the public to challenge the government and the U. S. military in terms of the kind of reprehensible activity that is usually hidden under the fog of war.
What Manning saw was a disregard for civilians and for human life in general. Although these releases seemed to significantly impact U. S. involvement in Iraq, this is not what Manning was after. What she was after was an awakening of the general public to the reality of war. In fact what Manning was doing was bringing more evidence to the notion, popularized by former Major General Smedley Butler, that modern ‘war’ is generally not engaged in to defend a nation and create greater security for its citizens, but rather serves the economic interests of a small elite group:
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.–Major General Smedley Butler
Enshrined in the U.S. Army Subject Schedule No. 27-1 is “the obligation to report all violations of the law of war.” Manning went to her chain of command and asked them to investigate the Collateral Murder video and other evidence of unacceptable conduct but her superiors refused. She ultimately made the principled decision to expose this information through Wikileaks, with the knowledge of how much the American public was being deceived about the true nature of the war that the U. S. Military was waging.
The Court Martial
Now if the U. S. government was sincere in their rhetoric that they fight wars overseas in order to promote and secure human rights and democracy around the world, then these files published by Wikileaks would have sparked a tremendous amount of contrition and self-reflection on their part, and Chelsea Manning would have been hailed as a hero from the beginning for helping the U. S. military recognize and repair obvious inconsistencies and outright hypocrisy within their operations. None of this happened.
We celebrate the Remembrance Day holiday to commemorate the bravery of soldiers. While there is no doubt that many soldiers deserve regard for showing the courage to enter a war zone, should we not awaken more to the evidence that many if not most soldiers are simply unwittingly accomplices in highly immoral operations? What ‘commemoration’ was given to Chelsea Manning, whose actions, unlike those of most soldiers, are obviously of great benefit to U. S. citizens and the human population as a whole? Of course. A court-martial.
In her court-martial trial Chelsea Manning admitted sending the files to WikiLeaks. She also confessed to interacting online with someone who was probably Mr. Assange, but she said she had acted on principle and was not working for WikiLeaks. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison — the longest sentence by far in an American leak case. It was obviously commensurate with the level of embarrassment suffered by those who control military action. The initial conditions of her confinement were egregious. She somehow managed to survive.
President Barack Obama commuted most of the remainder of her sentence shortly before he left office, and Manning was released from jail on May 17th, 2017.
Refusal To Testify
When asked how the world and the U. S. appeared to her a year after her release, Manning’s own words in the video below indicate that things seemed to have gotten worse, and many of her fears about the direction the world was going were manifesting:
As much as she may have thought that after this incarceration was over she would retire and ride off into the sunset, she would end up having to make a principled stand yet again. In May of 2019, prosecutors investigating Julian Assange and Wikileaks subpoenaed her to testify before a grand jury about their interactions. Believing that the case against Julian Assange was an extension of the kind of criminality and abuse of power that she had already been fighting against, she refused the subpoena on ethical grounds.
As the court order describes below, Chelsea Manning chose to reject a guarantee of immunity from the Department of Justice and was willing to once again endure prison time, and financial ruin as well, in order to stand up to her principles:
By Order dated May 6 , 2019 [Doc. 2 ], the Court granted Chelsea Manning full use and derivative use immunity, pursuant to 18 U.S . C . 6002, and ordered Ms. Manning to testify and provide other information in the above-captioned grand jury proceeding (“Grand Jury”). Subsequently , on May 16 , 2019, after Ms. Manning stipulated that she would refuse to comply with the Court’s May 6, 2019 Order, the Court found Ms. Manning in civil contempt, determined that a coercive sanction against Ms. Manning was appropriate, and remanded Ms. Manning to the custody of the Attorney General until such time as she purges herself of contemptor for the life of the Grand Jury, but in no event longer than 18 months. [Doc. 9] In that May 16 , 2019 Order, the Court also ordered that, if Ms. Manning did not purge herself of contempt within thirty (30) days, she shall incur a conditional fine of $500 per day until such time as she purges herself of contempt; and if she did not purge herself of contempt within sixty (60) days after issuance of the Order, she shall incur a conditional fine of $ 1, 000 per day until such time as she purges herself of contempt or for the life of the grand jury, whichever occurs first.
The Grumbles Motion
In February 2020, Manning’s legal team filed what’s known as a Grumbles motion in court, asserting that Manning has proven herself incoercible and so must, according to legal statute, be released from her incarceration. This article in The Intercept goes into more detail:
It is a grim peculiarity of American law that a person who refuses to cooperate with a grand jury subpoena may be held in contempt of court and fined or imprisoned with the express purpose of coercing testimony, but when the coercive condition is absent, such incarceration becomes illegal. Wednesday’s motion directs Judge Anthony Trenga, who is presiding over the grand jury and Manning’s imprisonment, to accordingly recognize the illegality in this case.
“The key issue before Judge Trenga is whether continued incarceration could persuade Chelsea to testify,” said Manning’s attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, on filing the Grumbles motion. “Judges have complained of the ‘perversity’ of this law: that a witness may win their freedom by persisting in their contempt of court. However, should Judge Trenga agree that Chelsea will never agree to testify, he will be compelled by the law to order her release.”
If the motion is successful, Manning will be freed for the very reason she has been caged: her silence. The judge can decide to recognize that Manning won’t speak as a consequence of more time in jail — or because she will continue to face unprecedented $1,000-per-day fines. Any other conclusion, after her months of steadfast and principled grand jury resistance, would fly in the face of all reason. The whistleblower’s actions and words make it plain.
“I have been separated from my loved ones, deprived of sunlight, and could not even attend my mother’s funeral,” Manning said in a statement Wednesday. “It is easier to endure these hardships now than to cooperate to win back some comfort, and live the rest of my life knowing that I acted out of self-interest and not principle.”
This is what another modern hero, whistleblower Edward Snowdon, had to say on the news that Chelsea Manning had been released from prison:
The government cast Manning into a dungeon for resisting a scheme to make publishers of news subject to the Espionage Act. They offered to let her out in exchange for collaboration, but she chose her principles instead.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) March 13, 2020
Under these circumstances, Chelsea Manning’s release from prison on March 12th is a victory for humankind–if enough of us acknowledge its significance. If a ballot came out for the greatest hero so far in the 21st century, Chelsea Manning would get my vote.