As I write these words, Chelsea Manning is in a jail cell.
This is not her first time in US prison: she spent nearly seven years in US jail, first awaiting trial and then post-conviction – after a guilty plea – on 22 counts relating to leaking material to WikiLeaks.
Too often, we brush past that fact as a mere sentence of biography, or of background. Let’s dwell on it for a moment: from the release of the first material leaked by Manning in 2010, we as the world’s public got an unprecedented view of US military and foreign affairs.
In the video titled “collateral murder” we could watch first-hand both the shocking callousness and the casualness of the crew of a US Apache as it gunned down a group of suspected militants, which included two Reuters journalists who were killed in the attack. Minutes later we see the same crew launch a Hellfire missile against a home – without even bothering to wait for a pedestrian simply walking near the house to pass.
Material in nearly 90,000 leaked documents from the Afghan conflict revealed similar abuses on a far larger scale – including even the existence of Task Force 373, a death squad revealed to have killed civilians and even Afghan police officers on its missions.
A similar cache of documents from Iraq, this time nearly 400,000 of them, revealed the huge civilian death toll of US operations in the country, shedding new light on so-called “escalation of force” incidents – a military euphemism for checkpoint shootings – and more.
More than 250,000 US diplomatic cables showed how the US used its soft power overseas, revealed corruption among US-allied governments, how the US spies on its allies as enthusiastically as its enemies, Middle Eastern power plays, and more.
And a final cache of documents relating to Guantanamo Bay showed what a hollow lie claims that only the “worst of the worst” were sent there, detailing how senile men in their 80s, taxi drivers, and other blameless civilians found themselves shipped halfway around the world, incarcerated without trial, and abused.
For revealing these things to the world – which the US government has repeatedly publicly acknowledged caused no physical harm to anyone – Chelsea Manning spent nearly seven years in jail, until Barack Obama commuted her sentence as one of his presidency’s final acts.
And now she is back there.
This time, she is in prison for refusing to testify at a Grand Jury hearing clearly intended at seeking prosecution of Julian Assange – and possibly others involved in WikiLeaks (where, as disclosure) I worked for some time during this period) – for its work publishing these cables.
Only someone blinkered by the minutiae of legal procedure – which technically allows such incarcerations to compel testimony – could fail to see the staggering injustice at play here. Manning is being persecuted needlessly for failing to play a part in a show trial to a Grand Jury which does not need her testimony.
Julian Assange is – as has been publicly stated in outlets across the world – a terrible housemate, an egotistical prick, and a misogynist who deserved to face proper judicial procedure in Sweden. He is also, when it comes to covering his ass legally, an idiot.
If the US wants to prosecute Assange, they do not need Chelsea Manning’s testimony to attempt it. They have her electronic chat logs with Adrian Lamo, the so-called journalist who turned her in to the authorities. They have their own records from that investigation. They have her extensive testimony from her 2013 court martial. They have the evidence of a WikiLeaks volunteer close to Assange who became a paid FBI informant. Thanks to the running habit of WikiLeaks sources to end up caught by authorities, they even have records of Assange working with hackers in 2012 to connect to a server being operated by the FBI.
Dragging Manning in front of a Grand Jury, then, is simply prosecutorial overreach – an overzealous and vindictive act aiming to punish her again for an act which many, rightly, see as one of heroism, and one which even its most ardent critic could not call a selfish or violent crime.
But the whole prosecution is a dangerous one. You do not need to be an admirer of Julian Assange to believe pursuing him in this way is a challenge to a free press and a free society.
Indeed, that’s the exact view that the Department of Justice and its then-Attorney General Eric Holder took when this prosecution was last active: seeing no way to prosecute Assange without opening the door to prosecute the Guardian, the New York Times, and others involved in publishing the Manning leaks, the prosecution was shuttered. The threat to the freedom of the press – protected by the constitution itself – was too great.
Why, under President Donald Trump, then, has it been reopened? It is impossible not to wonder whether the consequence the Obama administration feared is the one the Trump White House wants. The president, hardly a friend to the free press, now threatens its existence in a way far more consequential than temporarily throwing out a loudmouth correspondent from a press room.
Pursuit of Assange would be the act of a thuggish and vindictive government, and a banner moment in the decline of US press freedom. Needlessly jailing Chelsea Manning in the pursuit of that shows just how small the leaders of the US have become.
Chelsea Manning is in jail.
The US media may come to regret not making that bigger news.