Documents ordering the release of Chelsea Manning and former AntiSec hacker Jeremy Hammond were signed on Thursday by the same U.S. District judge who had them both detained in a Virginia jail last year for refusing to testify in the federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
Judge Anthony Trenga ordered both grand-jury resistors released, saying their testimony is no longer being sought after by prosecutors. The business of the grand jury itself, with which both refused to cooperate, is “concluded,” he wrote.
Their defiance came at a high cost—both literally and figuratively.
While released from the jail that’s held him since October, Hammond will soon be en route back to a federal correctional facility to serve out the remainder of a 10-year sentence for his role in the 2012 hacking of Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor.
Had Hammond not been called to testify, close supporters say, it is possible he would already be a free man. The 35-year-old Chicagoan anarchist—whose computer crimes were thoroughly documented and in some cases instigated by an FBI informant in late 2011—had put months of work into an intensive substance abuse program, which may have earned him his release in December. But that opportunity was seemingly wrecked the moment prosecutors yanked the high-profile inmate out of the medium-security prison in Kentucky where’d he been serving the last years of his sentence.
Despite having her freedom, the toll paid by Manning seems even more dire. The former Army intelligence analyst, who had previously served seven years of a 35-year sentence for leaking classified records about the American wars to WikiLeaks, was hospitalized on Wednesday after attempting to take her own life. She leaves the Alexandria jail with more than a quarter-million dollars in fines, a punishment for refusing to testify, a decision she said she had based on principle.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Manning’s legal team asked that reporters grant her privacy “while she gets on her feet.”
It remains unclear what new information Manning could have provided prosecutors about WikiLeaks or its founder, Julian Assange, who is currently battling extradition to the U.S. in London. The two allegedly spoke briefly in 2010 in online chats prior to the hand off of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and battlefield reports that, while doing very little to endanger the nation’s security, deeply embarrassed the U.S. State Department. Those conversations were already fully disclosed in transcript form during Manning’s court martial in 2013 and her attorneys say there is nothing new to be disclosed.
Hammond had perhaps more to give. Though the FBI has copies of chat room logs in which Hammond claims to have spoken with Assange—copies of which Gizmodo has reviewed, despite them being sealed for years by a Manhattan judge—it seems unlikely the government knows the precise details of Hammond’s discussions with WikiLeaks. What is clear is that neither Assange, nor anyone else associated with WikiLeaks, had prior knowledge of the Stratfor hack, which included some five million company emails later published by the anti-secrecy group.
As Gizmodo first reported in 2018, Hammond and his cohorts acquired a search tool after the hack from a source whom they believed was Assange himself, which was meant to help them rifle through Stratfor’s stolen files.
Assange, currently confined in the U.K., faces a 17-count indictment in the U.S., including charges under the Espionage Act. A photo shared online last month appeared to show the divisive 48-year-old publisher being held in a glass box during a court room hearing.
If extradited and convicted in a U.S. court, Assange could face as many as 175 years behind bars, which some experts believe could raise “profound First Amendment issues.”