On trial for exposing war crimes

June 5, 2013

Tristan Brosnan reports on the court-martial of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning--and argues that Manning deserve praise, not punishment.

MORE THAN 1,000 people marched past the main gates at Fort Meade in Maryland on June 1 in a demonstration against the impending start of a court-martial for WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning.

Manning should be returning to the civilian world right now. Instead, after three years of incarceration, Manning's court-martial on 22 charges, including "aiding the enemy," began on June 3.

Manning's attorney, David Coombs, had filed a defense motion to dismiss the charges, on the basis that Manning's right to a speedy trial had been violated. That motion was rejected by the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, in January.

According to the military Rules of Court-martial, Manning's trial should have been held within 120 days of arraignment. While Col. Lind claimed there were exceptional circumstances that warranted the extra time, Manning has languished in a military brig and been subjected to brutal treatment for years. Combs has accused the prosecutors of deliberately dragging their feet and wrote in his motion that "the government's behavior is nothing short of shameful."

Protesters march near Fort Meade to demand justice for Bradley Manning
Protesters march near Fort Meade to demand justice for Bradley Manning (Steve Rhodes)

Of the nearly three years Manning spent in prison, the prosecution spent 530 days eliciting classification reviews, but as Combs noted, "These classification reviews were not Tolstoy novels--they were generally documents that spanned three or four pages."

What better way to induce cooperation and a guilty plea than to keep a prisoner in a long, seemingly endless detention? Then there's the conditions in which Manning was held. Manning remained in solitary confinement for 11 months and was allowed to leave the cell for one hour a day. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez called Manning's treatment "cruel, inhumane, and degrading." Mendez also made it clear that Manning's isolation was "in an effort to coerce him into 'cooperation' with the authorities, allegedly for the purpose of persuading him to implicate others."

When asked if Manning had been tortured, Mendez reported that he could not confirm whether or not Manning was tortured, because Mendez had been consistently denied the ability to meet with Manning under acceptable conditions. In a civilian court, the violation of the right to a speedy trial and severe accusations of inhumane treatment and perpetual solitary confinement might lead to a dismissal of the charges.

For these reasons alone, the charges against Bradley Manning should be dismissed. But Manning is being prosecuted for, essentially, informing the public of U.S. war crimes, lies and government deception.

Manning's court-martial trial is expected to last for roughly three months. The prosecution is charging Manning with 22 separate counts, including a violation of the 1917 Espionage Act and "aiding an enemy."

Earlier this year, Manning pled guilty to 10 of the counts against him, acknowledging responsibility for the release of the military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks. Manning has pled "not guilty" to the other 12 charges, which include the charge of aiding the enemy.

Manning is looking at facing a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, based on the guilty plea, but prosecutors want to send a message to the American public about whistleblowing and are pursuing a life sentence, without parole.

THE MORE than 1,000 people who gathered on June 1 at Fort Meade to protest the start of the court-martial had a clear message: Bradley Manning is a hero, not a criminal. Banners read: "Prosecute war crimes not Bradley Manning," "Free Bradley Manning," and "Exposing war crimes is not a crime."

The police at Fort Meade closed down all the roads leading to the main entrance of Fort Meade, forcing protesters to park over a mile away and then walk the remaining distance in 90-degree heat. Despite the clear attempts to discourage the protest, the crowd marched past the main gates. Dozens of police cars lined the otherwise empty street in front, and on the other side of the fence, inside the base, soldiers on four-wheelers patrolled the perimeter.

The protest, which was organized by the Bradley Manning Support Network, also included members of CodePink: Women for Peace, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Courage to Resist, and many other community and students activists from all over the mid-Atlantic and North East.

Demonstrators came by bus from Washington, D.C., New York City and Baltimore. The protest illustrated that there are thousands of people across the country who are following Manning's case and count themselves as supporters.

After marching, the demonstration ended with a number of speeches. Speakers included Lt. Dan Choi and Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers, who has been one of Manning's most vocal supporters.

There were demonstrations on the same day in other cities across the U.S. In Seattle, for example, more than 100 Bradley Manning supporters took to the streets of downtown in protest. The action started with speakers at Westlake Mall. After marching through downtown, chanting and distributing leaflets to mostly supportive onlookers, the march ended with a speakout at Pike Place Market.

Speakers emphasized the hypocrisy of the government's position: War criminals are not prosecuted, while someone accused of revealing war crimes faces a possible sentence of life in a military prison. They also pointed out that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined.

DURING MANNING'S court-martial, the prosecution will call more than 200 witnesses to the stand and provide thousands of documents as "secret" evidence. In order for Manning to be found guilty of aiding and abetting the enemy, the prosecution will have to prove that Manning had "reason to believe" that the documents he released could aid a foreign power or harm the United States. They do not need to prove that Manning actually intended to harm the United States.

At the opening of the court-martial, the prosecution claimed that the U.S. obtained evidence in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in 2011 that bin Laden personally requested materials from WikiLeaks. The prosecution has also claimed that it will prove there were close links between Manning and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

The military court-martial isn't open to the broad public--only a few dozen supporters of Manning have been able to get in. The military denied 270 journalists press credentials for the court-martial. There will be no public transcript of the trial, and many of the prosecution's witnesses will provide secret testimonies that won't be released to the press.

On June 3, before the trial started, the military announced that "truth shirts, Bradley Manning shirts, and any other propaganda" would be banned from the courtroom. Facebook users have noted the irony that the "truth" is considered propaganda and has been banned from the court.

Indeed, not only "truth" T-shirts, but any defense of Manning's motivations for releasing state and military documents to WikiLeaks has been banned. Judge Lind has ruled that any discussion of motives is not permissible. But this misses the point. The real question the court should be addressing is why Manning released this information.

Manning himself made those motivations clear in an online chat with former hacker-turned-government-informant Adrian Lamo:

If you had free reign over classified networks...and you saw incredible things, awful things...things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C....what would you do? God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates and reforms...I want people to see the truth...because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

Manning's motivations for leaking the classified documents to WikiLeaks--to allow people to see the crimes the U.S. government were committing in their name--were justified. The State Department cables and military documents Manning released revealed, among other things, that the Pentagon had lied about not keeping records of the Iraqi death toll; the prison conditions of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay; that the U.S. military neglected and ignored reports of human rights violations by the Iraqi police and army; and that the U.S. was engaged in a secret drone war in Yemen.

For the U.S. government, the release of the WikiLeaks documents has been a diplomatic and international embarrassment, not a threat to national security. Manning's actions have not threatened the U.S. status as an international superpower, nor have they threatened U.S. military dominance throughout the world.

The only security that WikiLeaks has compromised is the security the U.S. state has from inspection by its own population. Nation states, especially the U.S., operate as if they are above the law, criticism and accountability.

As journalist Gary Younge wrote in a recent article for the Guardian:

In this world, murder is not the crime; unmasking and distributing evidence of it is. To insist that Manning's disclosure put his military colleagues in harm's way is a bit like a cheating husband claiming that his partner reading his diary, not the infidelity, is what is truly imperiling their marriage. Avoiding responsibility for action, one instead blames the information and informant who makes that action known.

Bradley Manning has revealed to the world the U.S.'s guilt in war crimes and lies--and deserves solidarity and celebration for it, not punishing and prison.

Steve Leigh contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives