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Chelsea Manning’s ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Moment

The former whistleblower has been in jail for a month after defying a federal subpoena to testify against Wikileaks.

Chelsea Manning, the Army whistleblower who released hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2011 and who called attention to war crimes committed by U.S. troops, is back in jail. In fact, she’s been there for a month—not that the mainstream media cares. What’s another whistleblower locked up?

But Manning isn’t being held in the federal lockup in Alexandria, Virginia, for providing classified information to the media. She was already sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for that. (She served seven years before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.) This time, she’s been thrown behind bars for an indeterminate period of incarceration because she refused to testify before the Wikileaks grand jury. And to make matters worse, she was reportedly held in solitary confinement (or, as sheriff Dana Lawhorne called it, “administrative segregation”) until April 5.  

While the hive media has been all but silent, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at least spoke out in support of Manning last week, calling her jail conditions “torture.”

What Manning is doing, in my view, is heroic for myriad reasons. There is no need to rehash what she—then Private First Class Bradley Manning—did in 2011. You don’t have to like Chelsea to acknowledge that she’s a whistleblower. There’s a legal definition of whistleblowing. It is bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or safety. That’s exactly what she did when she downloaded and delivered to Wikileaks thousands of pages of government documents that exposed the real truth about the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most damning of these for the government were the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs, and the Guantanamo files.

But the price that she has paid has been very high. Manning spent two of her seven years in prison in solitary confinement, a situation the United Nations has characterized as a form of torture. She twice attempted suicide the first time she was in solitary. And she was forced to remain naked for a year in solitary because she was a suicide risk. Authorities were afraid she would use her clothes to hang herself.

In early March, Manning was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in the federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The media reported that the Justice Department’s prosecutors wanted her to testify about her relationship with Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange and how she was able to pass classified documents to him in 2011. Manning contended that she had already testified to those questions in her own trial in 2012, and that all the feds had to do was enter into the record the transcript of her trial.

The feds wouldn’t relent. But neither would Manning. She said she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Then the government offered her qualified immunity. Nothing she said before the grand jury would be used against her. (Except if she contradicted her 2011 testimony. That’s a trick the feds love to use to charge people with perjury or with making a false statement. More on that in a minute.) Manning held firm, however. Even with the qualified immunity offer, she said that she would invoke her First Amendment right to freedom of speech, her Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure, and her Sixth Amendment right to due process. She wouldn’t budge, and the Justice Department asked the judge to hold her indefinitely in contempt of court. That is how Manning found herself behind bars again.

When Manning was arrested and charged with contempt of court, I tweeted:

I said this—and I believe every word of it—because Manning’s actions remind me of those of folk singer and legendary activist Pete Seeger, a personal hero of mine.

Pete Seeger was a member of the Communist Party USA from the early 1940s until 1949, when he split with the party over Josef Stalin’s atrocities. Still, he remained friendly with many party members. In 1955, Seeger, along with folksingers and members of his band The WeaversLee Hayes, Mil Lampell, and Ronnie Gilbert—were subpoenaed to testify before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where they were asked to name names. Hayes, Lampell, and Gilbert all pleaded the Fifth so as not to incriminate themselves. They urged Seeger to do the same. But he did not.

Instead, Seeger went before the HUAC and refused to answer any questions, citing his constitutional rights under the First Amendment. He told the Committee, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or religious beliefs, or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Seeger was charged with 10 felony counts of contempt of Congress—similar to Manning’s charge of contempt of court—convicted, and sentenced to 10 concurrent one-year terms in a federal prison. The conviction was overturned a year later on a technicality.

Like Manning, Seeger could have taken the easy way out. But he didn’t. He could have just taken the Fifth. He could have answered each question with “I don’t recall.” But he chose to make a political point, to take a stand. That was courageous in 1955 and it is courageous in 2019.

Seeger got caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. The situation for Manning, though, is more sinister. Contrary to popular belief, President Obama did not pardon Manning in the final days of his administration. Instead, he commuted her sentence, simply releasing her from prison. The conviction still stands and Manning is still in legal jeopardy. Prosecutors could still decide to charge her with crimes related to the original charges. With that said, was Manning’s subpoena a ham-fisted attempt to get her to contradict herself in new testimony, thus inviting another felony charge for perjury or making a false statement? Were prosecutors trying to get Manning to implicate herself in some process felony? Or were they simply trying to force her to turn rat on Julian Assange?

Again, Manning could have simply answered each question with “I don’t recall.” She would have been home in time for dinner. Instead, she made a political point—one that all of us should want to emulate. That point is “Don’t tread on me.” That point is “I’m willing to jeopardize my freedom to protect yours.”

I say often that in my time at the CIA, I learned that CIA culture is such that employees are taught that everything in life is a shade of gray. But that is simply not true. Some things are black and white, right or wrong. This is one of those things. It’s the government that’s the enemy here, not Manning or Assange.

Remember, the American people own the information that Manning and Assange are accused of releasing. We have a right to know what our government is doing in our name. We have a right to know whether the government is covering up crimes. We have a right to know when—and why—those Americans who commit war crimes or crimes against humanity are not being prosecuted. The mainstream media doesn’t tell us. But Wikileaks does.

We wouldn’t know about some of the most egregious war crimes of the past two decades without Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to share their politics. You don’t have to want to go out and have a beer with them. But you do have to respect what they’ve done.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA analyst and case officer and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He served two years in prison (2013-15) for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. He is currently an activist, a radio host, and the author of the recent book The Convenient Terrorist: Two Whistleblowers’ Stories of Torture, Terror, Secret Wars and CIA Lies with Joseph Hickman.