Chelsea Manning is Sacrificing her Freedom to Defend Freedom of the Press

Two weeks ago, Chelsea Manning was imprisoned in a federal detention center for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

To prevent Manning from exercising her 5th amendment right, prosecutors offered her immunity for her testimony. Nevertheless, she refused to cooperate, saying “the grand jury’s questions pertained to disclosures from nine years ago, and took place six years after an in-depth computer forensics case, in which I testified for almost a full day about these events.”

“I stand by my previous testimony. I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.”

Noted Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg recently came to Manning’s defense, arguing that the grand jury’s “secrecy and lack of witness rights makes it prone to frequent abuse.”

Ellsberg also said that Manning is “resisting its current abuse, as it is used to attack freedom of the press by pursuing criminal charges for publication of the very war crimes and corruption she courageously revealed to WikiLeaks nine years ago.”

The differences between Ellsberg and Manning are notable, and highlight the degree to which true freedom of the press has degraded over the past half century in the United States.

Their stories start off similarly — they both faced charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, and both could have spent the rest of their lives in prison. The differences, however, quickly begin to pile up.

Whereas Ellsberg’s leaks were published in the New York Times and other mainstream media, Manning had no such luck finding a news outlet willing to publish the data she leaked detailing civilian casualties, torture, and collateral murder of journalists by the U.S. military and our allies.

This was due in no small part to the Plame affair, which saw many in the media lionize New York Times reporter Judith Miller for protecting the identity of Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff despite facing a court order to disclose her source.

Miller found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place — she knew that revealing her source would cement her legacy as a White House lackey, given her previous incorrect reporting on WMDs in Iraq. On the other hand, she knew that refusing to reveal her source would mean going to jail.

When it was all said and done, Miller spent time in jail, revealed her source, and ended up triggering a legal precedent that had a chilling effect on news organizations’ willingness to publish classified information — a real win-win.

In the years since, mainstream U.S. news outlets have been hesitant to publish leaked classified information. Edward Snowden’s leak were first reported by the Guardian, giving the go-ahead to U.S. media to cover them, and Reality Winner’s leak was first reported by The Intercept, which was founded by Glen Greenwald, who first reported Snowden’s leak in the Guardian.

While Ellsberg had all charges against him dismissed in 1973, four decades later Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Though President Obama commuted her sentence at the end of his second term, it’s unclear whether he did so out of empathy for Manning or concern for his legacy on civil liberties.

With the Trump administration making it clear they view Wikileaks not as a media outlet, but as a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” and special counsel Mueller investigating them, it’s not hard to imagine how these same tactics could be applied to any other organization publishing classified information.

By refusing to testify before this grand jury, Chelsea Manning has made a more principled stand for freedom of the press than Judith Miller could have ever hoped to.

Yet mainstream media coverage has been sporadic at best, almost exclusively focusing on the narrative put forward by prosecutors, even when mentioning the extensive unconstitutional surveillance Manning has been subjected to since her release from prison in 2017.

Even the most progressive Democrats have remained silent on Manning’s imprisonment.

All the self described radicals who support Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shouldn’t get too excited about the prospects of dismantling our military industrial complex anytime soon, given the democratic socialist duo’s reluctance to take a position on the leaking of classified information.

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