FEW can endure the mental anguish of solitary confinement, or what prisons more insidiously refer to as ‘administrative segregation.’ Fewer still can endure multiple stretches of ‘ad seg’ occurring months and years apart. Former United Nations expert Juan Mendez has said that such detention can amount to torture, yet that’s precisely what whistleblower Chelsea Manning has braved in her pursuit of transparency and justice.
Since returning to prison on March 8, Manning has spent 22 hours each day in total isolation at William G Truesdale Adult Detention Center in Alexandria, Va, according to the advocacy group Chelsea Resists. ‘Chelsea can’t be out of her cell while any other prisoners are out, so she cannot talk to other people, or visit the law library, and has no access to books or reading material’, the group wrote in a statement last week. ‘She has not been outside for 16 days. She is permitted to make phone calls and move about outside her cell between 1 and 3 a.m.’
Manning is currently incarcerated for refusing to testify before a grand jury in an ongoing federal investigation of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Judge Claude Hilton of Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia has ordered that she remain detained until she decides to testify or the grand jury completes its work. In a statement of motion, her attorneys have raised the possibility that her subpoena was an act of reprisal, arguing that ‘[t]he President of the United States himself tweeted that Ms Manning “should never have been released”.’ Manning has pledged to fight the secrecy of the court’s proceedings and to ‘exhaust every legal remedy available.’
This is not the first time Manning has put her physical and psychological health at risk on behalf of the American public. In 2010, the intelligence officer who then identified as Bradley was found guilty under the Espionage Act after turning over upward of 750,000 classified or otherwise sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks. Those documents revealed, among other atrocities, that it was official US policy to ignore torture in Iraq, and that the majority of inmates at Guantanamo Bay are either innocent or low-level operatives. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison but served just seven and a half after receiving a commutation from Barack Obama shortly before he left office.
The trauma had been inflicted. Manning announced her desire to transition from male to female shortly before her sentencing and was repeatedly denied gender-affirming medical care during her time in prison. (The military eventually acceded to providing her treatment but continued to hold her in a men’s facility.) In July 2016, she tried to commit suicide (it would not be her sole attempt). Two months later, she announced via WikiLeaks that she was undertaking a hunger strike to protest the bullying of prison authorities and the US government.
Daniel Ellsberg, who risked a life sentence to leak the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times as an analyst at the Rand Corp., believes that Manning is nothing less than an American hero. ‘Manning knowingly risked her freedom then for truth-telling and actually suffered seven and a half years in prison’, he recently told Truthout’s Marjorie Cohn. ‘I admire her for what she is doing, risking and enduring right now.’
That she is willing to withstand prison a second time, despite being granted immunity for her testimony, is a testament to her courage. In a statement before her hearing earlier this month invoking her First, Fourth and Sixth Amendment protections, Manning expressed grave concern about how grand juries can be weaponized against social activists. As Chip Gibbons observes in Jacobin, ‘Manning’s reservations appear to be well founded.’
‘While the grand jury’s target may be officially a secret, anonymous officials confirmed to the Washington Post that the inquiry was related to a secret indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’, he writes. ‘Press freedom groups have long warned about the ramifications of the US government pursuing charges against Assange for publishing the information that Manning leaked.… Regardless of what one thinks of Assange, such a move would be an unprecedented blow to press freedom. No one has ever been prosecuted in the US for publishing classified information, in part because most assume it would be unconstitutional. Even the Obama administration — which essentially normalized the practice of charging whistleblowers under the Espionage Act — balked at prosecuting Assange or WikiLeaks as a bridge too far.’
With a Trump administration that has aggressively pursued leakers and is now threatening to crack down on journalists in the wake of the Mueller report, the stakes could not be higher. Indeed, after Reality Winner received a five-year sentence for the unauthorized release of a government report on Russian hacking during the 2016 election — the longest ever imposed by a federal court for such a crime — it seems all but certain that the government is now attempting to make an example of a prominent public figure. Manning’s lawyers had asked that she be confined to her home for refusing to comply with a grand jury; Judge Hilton sent her to prison instead.
During a recent conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald put Manning’s heroism in perspective:
‘The media in the United States has spent two years screaming about the threat that Trump poses to press freedoms because he says mean things about the media on Twitter or insults Wolf Blitzer and Chuck Todd, and yet here we have what is really a grave threat to press freedom: the attempt to make it a felony to publish classified material—which is what WikiLeaks did. Even the anti-press freedom Obama administration said this was a bridge too far for us.
‘And while most reporters are mute on this scandal, on this controversy, and while a lot of Democrats are supportive of it, because they still hate WikiLeaks so much from the 2016 election that they’re happy to see Julian Assange go to jail, even if it means standing behind the Trump administration, Chelsea Manning is not just opposing it, she’s opposing it to the point where she refuses to participate in it, even if it means, as it now does, that she’s going to be jailed for being in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a subpoena. We all owe our immense gratitude to Chelsea Manning for everything she’s done over the last decade, but even more so now.’
Prior to his order, Manning told Hilton that she will ‘accept whatever you bring upon me.’ That has meant re-entering prison without knowing when she might be released, along with weeks on end under dehumanizing conditions. For her remarkable bravery, for her willingness to defy a US government that seems to grow more hostile to whistleblowers with each successive administration, Manning is our Truthdigger of the Month.
TruthDig.com, March 29. Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig. He is a graduate of the Arthur L Carter Institute of Journalism.
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