Former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, refused again Thursday to testify to a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and was again sent to jail for up to 18 months.
Manning, 31, served two months in the Alexandria, Va., city jail earlier this year, and was freed only when the grand jury investigating Assange expired. But another grand jury was empaneled Thursday to renew the government’s investigation of Assange, who was indicted in March for conspiring to access secret Defense Department computers.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga ordered Manning to jail after she again reiterated her objections to providing testimony. He also imposed a fine of $500 per day if Manning does not testify within 30 days, and raised the fine to $1,000 per day if she does not testify within 60 days.
Manning told the judge, “The government cannot build a prison bad enough, cannot create a system worse than the idea that I would ever change my principles. I would rather starve to death than to change my opinions in this regard. I mean that quite literally.”
Trenga responded, “There’s nothing dishonorable in discharging your responsibility as a U.S. citizen.”
Manning refused to testify before the grand jury in March, even under an offer of immunity from federal prosecutors. “I believe this grand jury seeks to undermine the integrity of public discourse,” Manning wrote in an affidavit earlier this month, “with the aim of punishing those who expose any serious, ongoing, and systemic abuses of power by this government.”
Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, was arrested in 2010. She was convicted at a court-martial in 2013 of crimes related to her disclosures and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Obama commuted her sentence after she served seven years, in 2017.
Assange was arrested in London in April after seven years in asylum at Ecuador’s British embassy. He remains there pending extradition.
Between January and May 2010, the government alleges, Manning downloaded from government databases nearly 500,000 reports related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 250,000 State Department cables and 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs. During that period, Manning allegedly asked Assange for help in cracking a Defense Department password on a network used for classified documents.
According to online chats released at Manning’s trial in 2013, Assange agreed to help with the password, though he reportedly told Manning days later, “no luck so far.” But Manning continued to download State Department cables and send them to WikiLeaks, which published large troves of the hacked data in 2010 and 2011.
Manning was jailed for refusing to testify on March 8. In calling for her release, her lawyers argued that the civil contempt of court statute used to jail her was for coercive purposes, and would not serve its purpose because Manning would never testify. They argued that other prisoners had been released when it was clear that the jailing was not serving its coercive purpose.
“In the absence of a reasonable expectation of coercing testimony,” attorney Moira Meltzer-Cohen wrote, “confinement has exceeded its lawful scope, and must be terminated.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Traxler said that Manning’s reasoning was “specious at best. The entire grand jury system would collapse, because everyone could simply take a principled stand against the grand jury and not testify.” He said that “the longer Ms. Manning spends in jail, the more she realizes it’s in her interest to testify.”
Manning said in her affidavit that she was placed in administrative segregation, or solitary confinement, for her first four weeks in the Alexandria jail, where most federal prisoners in Virginia are held. She said the isolation caused her “extraordinary pain” and that she was sometimes in a “dissociative stupor.” During one non-contact visit, she because nauseated with vertigo and vomited on the floor, Manning wrote.
But before a judge could rule on whether or not Manning should continue to be held, the grand jury expired and she was released.
Manning was not required to actually appear before the grand jury and refuse to answer questions Thursday. She said in a press conference that she and the government had stipulated that she would not testify, and that the process could move directly to her motion to quash the government’s subpoena, which Trenga then denied.
“The questions are the same questions I was asked before the court-martial,” Manning said. She also noted that Assange has already been indicted. “If there’s already been an indictment, why are we going through the grand jury process?” Manning asked.
U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger declined to say why the government continued to seek Manning’s testimony. “We have a lawfully predicated reason for seeking her testimony and will continue to do so,” Terwilliger said. “No one wants Ms. Manning out of contempt proceedings more than me. All we need is Ms. Manning to answer questions.”