It now appears all but certain that Chelsea Manning will soon appear before a federal grand jury and—likely—be forced to testify about her association with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange nearly a decade ago.
A federal judge on Tuesday denied a motion filed by Manning’s legal team to quash the subpoena. Outside the U.S. District Courthouse, Manning told reporters that her attorneys “still have grounds to litigate” and would continue trying to prevent the government from compelling her testimony. Her attorneys’ bid to unseal her testimony was also denied. The subpoena, in the Eastern District of Virginia, was first reported by the New York Times on Thursday.
Although the nature of the grand jury investigation is unknown, the Washington Post reports that Tuesday’s hearing was attended by the Assange prosecutorial team. Unspecified charges against Julian Assange were inadvertently revealed by prosecutors in a court filing in November 2018. The nature of the charges are unknown, but the Post also reported (citing anonymous U.S. officials) that the case is unrelated to the 2016 election.
Manning, 31, was convicted under the Espionage Act in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her sentence, the longest in U.S. history for that crime, was commuted by then-President Barack Obama three days before he left office in 2017. Audio of her courtroom apology—“I’m sorry that my actions hurt people, I’m sorry that they hurt the United States”—was aired by NBC News less than a week before his decision. She was released from the Fort Leavenworth disciplinary barracks in May 2017.
After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2007, Manning received training as an intelligence analyst and worked at Fort Drum processing military field reports, known as SIGACTS, from the war in Afghanistan. In late 2009, she was deployed to a forward operating base east of Baghdad, where her work included analyzing events on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
She’d later state in court that she believed the military had become “obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists” and that the U.S. government was not adequately suspicious of the crackdowns on local dissidents carried out by the Iraqi Federal Police (IFP) and other host nation partners.
In particular, Manning stated that her superiors had once ordered her to assist the IFP in an investigation of a Baghdad printing press, which she had determined was unrelated to terrorism, but whose work was instead focused on reporting public corruption in the government of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The IFP detained 15 people at the printing press, which Manning believed was part of an operation—supported by the U.S. military—to eliminate al-Maliki’s political opponents.
She later testified about her belief that, in the custody of the Baghdad police, the dissidents would be “very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time—if ever.”
Her decision to become a WikiLeaks source was also prompted by footage of U.S. airstrikes, which she would describe as portraying a “seemingly delightful bloodlust” on the part of aerial weapons teams. This includes the now-infamous footage of two Apache helicopters directing cannon fire onto a crowd of 10 men in Baghdad, including two Iraqi war correspondents, whom the gunners can be heard calling “dead bastards.” Manning likened the pilots’ behavior in the video, dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, to “a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”
In a statement to the Guardian newspaper in 2013, Manning said that she did not consider herself a “pacifist” or “anti-war,” but that she was a “transparency advocate.” “I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects,” she wrote.
Like many trans women, Manning had joined the military in a misguided attempt to transform herself into something more masculine. In a 2010 email, she’d write that she had joined the military to “get rid of it,” a phenomenon that former military psychologist George R. Brown called the “flight into hyper-masculinity.” (A 2012 study by Brown concluded that the percentage of trans women in the military is likely more than double that of the civilian population.) Her time in Iraq was marked by psychological distress and emotional outbursts, likely the product of working in an environment that her Army psychologist would label “openly hostile.”
While on leave in Maryland roughly five months after her overseas deployment, Manning walked into a Barnes & Noble and began uploading hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks.
She was eventually charged with leaking portions of 227 documents pulled from a classified computer network. The impact of the WikiLeaks release, while ultimately embarrassing for the military and U.S. State Department, posed only a moderate to low risk, according to a later Defense Intelligence Agency review. Multiple investigations by journalists have not located any sources overseas threatened or killed as a result of the release. Forty-four of the 116 diplomatic cables Manning was charged with leaked were eventually declassified. During her trial, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy.
Manning’s chief supporters, known as Chelsea Resists!, criticized the government’s decision to keep “basic facts of this grand jury under seal,” calling it a “punitive effort” by the Trump administration “to reverse Obama’s legacy, exposing [Manning] to legal hardship and possible imprisonment.”
While Manning would not herself be gagged from speaking to reporters afterward about her testimony, her legal team has expressed concern that she could be remanded into custody before exiting the building, according to a source with knowledge of their thinking.
“Today we stand in solidarity with Chelsea Manning, and her fight against the dangerous and undemocratic grand jury system. Grand juries operate in secret, allowing the government to retaliate against activists and dissidents behind closed doors,” her support committee said.
“This case is no exception. By demanding that Chelsea testify and keeping the basic facts of this grand jury under seal, the government today denied the public’s right to see this oppressive process in the light of day.”