When Barack Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence three days before the end of his presidency, it signified a shift in the political landscape—one that her supporters and those long-critical of the United States military welcomed.
“Let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence [...] it makes sense to commute–and not pardon–her sentence,” he said of his decision. Obama’s action suggested that the United States was finally willing, perhaps, to reckon with its destructive military operations overseas, and the ways the system treats trans people at home. The moment was hopeful and relieving to the many who saw Manning not as the traitor she was accused of being, but as an American heroine.
But neither their hope—nor Manning’s freedom—would last.
Since she leaked classified documents about Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010, the former Army intelligence analyst has become the face of a grassroots movement challenging the unchecked might of the U.S. military, and its disregard for the people in the countries it routinely invades. But in the three years since Obama announced Manning's commutation, she’s also become a figure in the fight against an unjust system, after refusing to comply with a grand jury investigation, a decision that has cost her her freedom—again. To detractors, though, including a new presidential administration hostile to whistleblowers of Manning’s ilk, she remains no more than a traitor.
It is because of this hostility that she is now back behind bars under the Trump administration with no plans to acquiesce to the government. The question remains whether or not the government will acquiesce to her.
How a Leak of Military Documents Led to a 35-Year Prison Sentence
In 2010, Manning smuggled more than 700,000 classified military documents out of an army base in Iraq by downloading them onto a CD labeled “Lady Gaga.”
The documents contained a massive amount of mostly classified information, including the number of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, video of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad laughing as they killed and injured civilians, as well as other evidence of American troops knowingly harming civilians, including children. After several national news organizations turned away the leaked documents, Manning sent them to WikiLeaks, igniting a national controversy.
Consequently, in 2013, a court-martial charged Manning with violating the Espionage Act, among other charges. During the trial, she told the judge that she decided to share the files because they “document the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and she thought that they “might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment every day.”
Despite her testimony, Manning began serving her 35-year sentence in May 2010, which was heavily criticized as “excessive,” compared to previous cases involving leaks. Manning would not be free again until May 2017, four months after President Obama commuted her sentence.
Why Chelsea Manning Is Back in Jail
The country that Manning stepped into in 2017 was very different from the one she essentially left in 2010. For one, Donald Trump was president, and his administration was already outwardly hostile toward her—only days after he was inaugurated, Trump called Manning an “ungrateful traitor” in a tweet.
On the other hand, trans visibility had entered the mainstream while Manning, arguably among the country’s most famous trans women, was behind bars. In addition to becoming a figure of the anti-military crowd, Manning left prison—where she faced intense gender-based discrimination amounting to inhumane treatment according to the United Nations—to find that she’d already become an icon in the fight for trans rights.
Manning had 22 months of freedom before she’d be back in jail. She wasted no time jumping back into the political fray, though this time choosing a more conventional route. In January 2018, she announced her run for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland on a radical platform that included abolishing prisons and dismantling ICE. She did not win the Democratic nomination, but she did gain a new following based on her politics.
In February 2019, Manning’s freedom was jeopardized when she was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the U.S. government’s case against the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. She refused.
Her objections, she said, have less to do with the specific case and more to do with the entire grand jury system, which she says operates on the basis of secrecy and coercion. Unlike a trial jury, a grand jury case takes place completely behind closed doors, with a high indictment rate of 99 percent (hence, the popular term, “A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich”). The system has been criticized for failing to indict police officers. Those called to testify before a grand jury are not allowed to have anyone present, including an attorney, and may not be warned whether or not they are being considered as a target or a witness.
“I object strenuously to this subpoena, and to the grand jury process in general,” Manning told The Washington Post in a statement at the time. “We’ve seen this power abused countless times to target political speech. I have nothing to contribute to this case and I resent being forced to endanger myself by participating in this predatory practice.”
Manning has been held in contempt of court since then, with the exception of one week in May 2019 between grand jury terms.
“I can't imagine it came as a shock to very many people to see that the U.S. government managed to find a way to disrupt her life, post-commutation,” said Moira Meltzer-Cohen, Manning’s lawyer.
Manning will be held for the entirety of the 18-month grand jury term, unless she agrees to testify, which is unlikely. “I am prepared for her, and more importantly she is prepared, to spend the maximum 18 months behind bars in the service of her principles,” Meltzer-Cohen said. In addition to jail time, Manning is being fined daily for refusing to testify: $500 per day in custody after 30 days, and $1,000 per day after 60 days.
The conditions of Manning’s confinement have been criticized, most notably by Nils Melzer, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, who called the conditions of her detainment “torture” and “incompatible with the international human rights obligations of the United States” in a public letter. Melzer called for her immediate release and the reimbursement and cancellation of all fines she has accumulated.
Manning has used the circumstances to vocally oppose the entire grand jury system. In June, she wrote a nearly 3,000-word letter to Judge Anthony Trenga, who ordered her coercive confinement, detailing the reasoning behind her objection to grand juries: namely, the way they aim to punish activists and, in her opinion, undermine due process. She wrote:
I understand the idea that as a civil contemnor, I hold the key to my cell – that I can free myself by talking to the grand jury. While I may hold the key to my cell, it is held in the beating heart of all I believe. To retrieve that key and do what you are asking of me, your honor, I would have to cut the key out, which would mean killing everything that I hold dear, and the beliefs that have defined my path.
Manning’s astonishing commitment to her own ethical code—one that has been put to the test as a soldier, a political candidate, and now, a citizen refusing to testify—has earned her a fair share of supporters (including fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden), in addition to her adversaries. The former have been rallying behind her as she awaits the 18-month grand jury term, launching a petition demanding her release with tens of thousands of signees and advocating on her behalf via the hashtag #FreeChelsea.
According to Meltzer-Cohen, the government’s response to Manning’s refusal to testify has zero chance of convincing her to change her mind. “The government and the judge have an opportunity here to recognize that Chelsea is incoercible, and therefore must be released, and I certainly hope they rise to the occasion,” she said.
As of now, Manning has eight months left before reaching the maximum amount of time that the government can hold her for refusing to testify, but it’s unclear if her freedom will be guaranteed after that. Though in order to keep Manning in jail after the expiration of the current grand jury term, a prosecutor would have to find a new basis to issue another subpoena.
After Special Rapporteur Melzer published his letter condemning the U.S. government for using coercive confinement against Manning, Manning issued a characteristic response.
“I am thrilled to see the practice of coercive confinement called out for what it is: incompatible with international human rights standards,” she said. “Regardless, even knowing I am very likely to stay in jail for an even longer time, I’m never backing down.”