Whistle blower and activist Chelsea Manning, in what she said is her first trip outside of the United States since she was released from a U.S. prison, speaks at the annual re:publica conferences on their opening day on May 2, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.
Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is refusing to make public any records it has amassed on whistleblower Chelsea Manning, even though the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst waived her rights under the Privacy Act and requested in a letter that her more-than-8,000 page file be released.

In response to a Freedom of Information/Privacy Act request, the FBI stated the records were considered exempt from disclosure because their release could reasonably be expected to interfere with ongoing law enforcement proceedings.

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While the bureau’s explanation for withholding the records offers no other details about the investigation to which they apparently pertain, it suggests that Manning’s files may be central to the U.S. government investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been charged under seal by prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Screenshot: Emma Best

While agency letters responding to FOIA requests are generally standardized and, internally, aren’t considered “official statements” on behalf of an agency, the FBI’s rejection of the request—and Manning’s appearance last month before a federal grand jury in Virginia—appear to lend credibility to anonymous sources in the Washington Post, who’ve claimed the case against Assange is unrelated to events surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The fact that the FBI has assessed that releasing Manning’s files would likely interfere with enforcement proceedings could indicate that her 2010 disclosure of classified material to WikiLeaks plays a larger role in the Assange case than previously reported.

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Manning, who would later apologize for her actions in court, admitted to leaking more than 725,000 classified U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks following her deployment to Iraq in 2009, including diplomatic cables, battlefield reports, and five Guantanamo Bay detainee profiles. Among other reasons, she cited the “seemingly delightful bloodlust” of U.S. aerial weapons teams as a primary motivation for the leak, in addition to the military’s collaboration with Iraqi authorities, which she claimed intelligence reports showed had employed torture against political dissidents.

This leak included 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 referring to as “dead bastards.” Manning likened the soliders’ behavior in court to children “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”

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Ultimately, Manning was only charged with leaking portions of 227 classified documents, among them 44 diplomatic cables that have since been declassified. A Defense Intelligence Agency review later determined the leak posed only a moderate to low risk to national security.

The FOIA request for her FBI file was issued through the MuckRock website by national security reporter Emma Best, a member of the journalistic group Distributed Denial of Secrets, which aims to publish secretive material WikiLeaks declines to host, including, most recently, a large batch of emails from Russian officials. (Best has also contributed reporting on WikiLeaks for Gizmodo.)

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A Privacy Act waiver signed by Chelsea Manning in September 2018.
Screenshot: Emma Best

Manning has been jailed in Virginia since March 8 for refusing to answer a federal grand jury’s questions about her association with WikiLeaks—though not entirely out of loyalty to WikiLeaks or Assange himself. Manning and her supporters say she opposes the use of grand juries on principle, calling them a “secretive and oppressive process” that has been used “historically to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.”

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Manning’s attorneys have asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to release her from jail pending her appeal, saying the District Court failed to consider her arguments against being forced to testify. After her arrest, she was held in solitary confinement—or what the jailers call administrative segregation—for 28 days. She was placed with the jail’s general population on April 4.

As of 2012, Manning’s FBI file consisted of more than 8,000 pages from over 600 documents, according to U.S. Army Major Ashden Fein, the lead prosecutor at her court-martial. (The complete WikiLeaks file, Fein said, was over 42,000 pages.) “For the Bureau to claim that the entirety of her file is exempt,” said Best, “they must either be abusing the exemptions allowed by Congress or the law enforcement proceedings involving Chelsea must be scoped so broadly that one must wonder if her lawyers aren’t right about the grand jury investigation and questions potentially being part of a trap.”

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“The FBI’s response will be appealed in its entirety and requests relating to Ms. Manning will continue to be filed through MuckRock,” she added.