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Chelsea Manning Is Suing the Government to Get Her FBI File

The government has insisted that the documents are related to ongoing law enforcement work, and are therefore not subject to FOIA requests.
October 13, 2015, 10:20pm
Photo via AP/US Army

The imprisoned WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to compel the FBI and the Department of Justice to release documents that they have compiled on her. The suit follows a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that Manning filed last year that the United States government has repeatedly denied.

The case is just the latest challenge to the Obama administration's tight-fisted FOIA policy, which has been forcing citizens to file suit in order to extract documents from government agencies.

"Unfortunately, litigation often seems to be necessary in order to compel a fair and thorough response to a FOIA request," explained Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "The act of filing a lawsuit often prompts the government to release more records than it has previously agreed to disclose."

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Manning's activities were first brought to the attention of authorities when a hacker Manning chatted with online reported her to the FBI. Her suit, filed in DC District Court last week, is seeking the release of material that the DOJ and the FBI collected as part of an investigation against her that never led to any criminal charges.

Instead, the former Army intelligence analyst was court-martialed by a military judge in 2013. These DOJ and FBI documents from the parallel investigation, Manning's lawyers argue, should now be made public since Manning has already pled guilty to several crimes, been convicted of others, and is serving jail time.

The government has countered that the documents are related to ongoing law enforcement work, and are therefore not subject to FOIA requests.

Manning's lawyers are calling foul.

"It's improper for the government to deny Chelsea access to these documents when her case has already been tried," said Vincent Ward, one of the attorneys representing Manning. "She's been court-martialed, and the DOJ conducted an overlapping investigation — it's absurd to keep every single one of those documents secret."

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Manning was first taken into custody at an Army base near Baghdad in 2010 after she passed along classified information — including a now famous video of US Apache helicopter firing on a group of Reuters journalists — to the website WikiLeaks.

After spending a year in solitary confinement and two years imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, she was convicted of espionage, theft, computer fraud, and a number of other charges related to her work with Wikileaks.

In February 2014, Manning filed a FOIA request asking the DOJ for all documents relating to its investigation of her work with WikiLeaks, as well as documents that relate to "alleged civilian co-conspirators" who might have helped her pass along information.

It's been two years, and the government has yet to provide a single document. The DOJ has cited a provision that exempts records or information that's been "compiled for law enforcement proceedings," though the DOJ has yet to bring a case against Manning.

The DOJ did not respond to request for comment from VICE News. But Aftergood believes that Manning's suit potentially has merit.

"Manning has a plausible argument, as opposed to a frivolous one, that her request was not properly fulfilled," he said. "But that doesn't guarantee victory in court."

_Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: _@AASchapiro