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Chelsea Manning Risks Jail To Fight WikiLeaks Grand Jury

Chelsea Manning will face a closed contempt hearing after she refused to answer questions during proceedings held by a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, that is investigating WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks grand jury investigation has been ongoing in some form or another in Alexandria since at least December 2010.

It was convened by the Justice Department in response to disclosures Manning made to WikiLeaks in 2010, when she was an intelligence analyst for the United States Army.

What Manning disclosed exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable conduct by U.S. government officials. But she was arrested, subject to a court-martial, and convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other related offenses.

She received a 35-year sentence and was released after six years in military prisons because a grassroots campaign successfully pressured President Barack Obama to commute her sentence.

“A judge will consider the legal grounds for my refusal to answer questions in front of a grand jury. The court may find me in contempt and order me to jail,” Manning stated.

On March 6, Manning appeared before the grand jury after she was granted immunity for her 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 Sixth Amendment, and other statutory rights.’”

Manning added, “In solidarity with many activists facing the odds, I will stand by my principles. I will exhaust every legal remedy available. My legal team continues to challenge the secrecy of these proceedings, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my refusal.”

She could face up to 18 months in jail if she is found “in contempt” of court.

Manning launched a campaign, “Chelsea Resists,” to raise funds for her legal defense as she fights the grand jury subpoena.

A legal attempt to quash the subpoena prior to her appearance before the grand jury was rejected by a federal judge on March 5.

Grand juries can be empaneled for 18 months, or if they are “special” grand juries, they may last up to 36 months. Over the past eight years, the grand jury has presumably gone through multiple iterations, either being renewed or relaunched.

According to a report from the Washington Post, the grand jury is interested in whether WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange solicited Manning to disclose documents.

Manning testified during her court-martial about accounts linked to WikiLeaks, or WLO, that she communicated with. It is possible she communicated with Assange, but they never exchanged identifying information.

“No one associated with the WLO pressured me into giving more information. The decisions that I made to send documents and information to the WLO and the website were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility for my actions,” Manning asserted.

The grand jury would like to try and poke holes in Manning’s testimony to try and build a case against Assange and possibly other staff members of WikiLeaks.

Last year, Manning Support Network co-founder David House was subpoenaed to testify (again). He said he was asked questions that seemed to relate to the Afghanistan or Iraq War Logs.

The fact that President Donald Trump’s administration is engaged in this investigation against WikiLeaks over its publications in 2010 is especially alarming, given the fact that President Barack Obama’s administration backed off when they recognized there was no way to pursue charges against Assange or any other WikiLeaks staffer without opening U.S. news organizations or journalists up to potential prosecutions.

Margaret Ratner-Kunstler has advised individuals connected to WikiLeaks and the Manning Support Network on how to handle grand jury subpoenas. She outlined the scope of how grand juries are wielded against people by the U.S. government in a conversation for “Law & Disorder” radio recorded in 2010, before the WikiLeaks grand jury was empaneled.

The immunity granted to Manning is a “transactional immunity.” It would only cover what Manning said. Prosecutors could still say, “Well, this didn’t come from that [person]” or it “came from something else.” They could do a kind of parallel construction of evidence. And refusing to testify after being granted this tiny level of immunity would lead to potential imprisonment.

As Ratner-Kunstler described, during a contempt hearing, a judge asks why a person refused to testify. “Generally, people assert the First Amendment claims, which are not deemed sufficient to overcome the immunity issues so the judge then orders you to testify.”

“You go back into the grand jury room,” Ratner-Kunstler added. “If you testify, that’s one thing. If you refuse to testify, you’re brought back before the judge, and the judge then holds you in what is known as civil contempt.” A person is in jail for the length of the grand jury.

When a person is held in civil contempt, “The keys to the jail are in your pocket. You’re in jail for as long as you refuse to testify.”

Assange remains in the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom, where he has asylum protection. Prosecutors apparently have drafted a criminal complaint against him. But in January, a federal judge rejected an effort by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to have the charges unsealed.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."