The judge in the court martial of Bradley Manning, the former US Army analyst accused of pilfering reams of classified cables and military reports and giving them to WikiLeaks, today peremptorily declined to drop the most serious of the charges - that he “aided the enemy” - for which he faces a possible life sentence.
Dressed in his dark green military suit with sharp creases and epaulettes, Pvt Manning, who is a dual nationality British-American, leaned forward in his seat at the defence table, jaws clenched, listening intently as Judge Denise Lind read through her lengthy ruling. There had been some speculation from legal experts before today that defence motions for the dismissal of the gravest charges in the case had some hope of success.
For civil liberty and press freedom advocates – and certainly for the defence here – her ruling was blunt and seemingly unequivocal. “He was knowingly providing information to the enemy,” Judge Lind said reading a long, legalistic account of her reasoning from the bench. “He knew he was dealing with the enemy”.
“We are disappointed,” conceded Jeff Paterson, director of the Bradley Manning Support Network, who, among other sympathisers in black T-shirts with ‘Truth’ slogans printed across them, was in the closely guarded and windowless courtroom for the proceedings. But putting on a brave face, he noted that her decision didn’t preclude her finding Pvt. Manning not guilty on these and other charges when she delivers final verdicts.
“We are very hopeful that as a matter of law when it comes to ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ Bradley Manning will be found innocent of the prosecution’s charges. Because he is, it’s that simple. This is the first time in American history that someone is facing these charges for giving information to a media outlet for the greater good.” He noted that while the US government is not seeking the death penalty in this case it could in similar cases in the future. “It would be a terrible precedent to set up the legal framework to execute a whistleblower,” he said.
Underway since 3 June, the non-jury trial at Fort Meade, a US Army base located close to the National Security Agency, NSA, in Maryland north of Washington, is now approaching its conclusion. Judge Lind will render her verdicts, possibly as early as next week. That will be followed immediately by sentencing proceedings which may last several more weeks with both sides presenting additional evidence and witness testimony.
Few trial days have started with as much as suspense as today, however. Pvt Manning appeared to be blinking swiftly when Judge Lind made clear she was denying the motions to dismiss and his chief lawyer, David Coombs asked for a recess, presumably to give his client and his team time emotionally to regroup. A finding of guilty of ‘aiding the enemy’ would normally lead to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The defence had argued that press freedom was stake here because by equating the transfer of classified materials to the media with ‘aiding the enemy’ – essentially treason – the government was creating a framework of intimidation for “people for getting information out to the press, to basically put . . . a hammer down on any whistleblower.”
Testifying for the defence earlier this week, Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler concurred. He emphasised that WikiLeaks was a “legitimate journalistic organization”. Indeed, under questioning from Judge Lind this week, the prosecution conceded that had Pvt Manning sent the information to The New York Times or the Washington Post he would have faced exactly the same charges.
“Once you accept that WikiLeaks is a new journalistic organization that can be read by anyone with an Internet connection . . . that essentially means that any leak to a media organization that can be read by any enemy anywhere in the world becomes automatically aiding the enemy,” Mr Benkler testified.
A military legal source at Fort Meade noted that even had the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge been dropped, the defendant would still have been facing a total of 154 years behind bars if found guilty of all the other charges involved in the case. Pvt Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges earlier this year which alone could put him in prison for 20 years. He has pleaded not guilty to 12 additional, graver charges including that of aiding the enemy.
A slight man with frameless glasses and the usual military haircut, Pvt manning is accused of setting in train the largest leaking of classified information in the history of the US. Prosecutors say he leaked the documents, reports, cables and videos to WikiLeaks in early 2010. The subsequent posting of large amounts of that information on the WikiLeaks site seriously embarrassed the United States, causing a global diplomatic flap.
His trial in recent weeks has been somewhat eclipsed, however, by the case of Edward Snowden, who remains holed up in Moscow’s international airport after disclosing the NSA’s broad and previously undisclosed reach into private telephone data and Internet traffic. However, yesterday’s finding by Judge Lind might send a chilling message to Mr Snowden – that if he ever is tried on US soil, he may face the similar charges of aiding the enemy.
The assertion that Pvt Manning aided the enemy turns in part on prosecution testimony that some of the material that found its way to the WikiLeaks site was harvested by al-Qa’ida operatives and copies of it where subsequently found at the Pakistan lair of Osama bin Laden when he was killed by Navy Seals. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” military prosecutor Capt. Angel Overgaard said. “He knew exactly the consequences of his actions.”
In her ruling, Judge Lind said the prosecution had supplied sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pvt Manning was knowingly transmitting information to known enemies, including al-Qa’ida. She also refused to dismiss a separate charge relating to computer fraud.
Mr Combs had contended that his client could not have known for sure that anything he leaked would reach al-Qa’ida hands. Pvt Manning, he told the court, never had “actual knowledge” the documents would be of help to terrorist and enemies of America. “The army does not know whether the enemy goes to WikiLeaks,” Coombs told the judge. “We simply do not know.”
Both sides have rested their cases. Judge Lind will hear a rebuttal to the defence case. Thereafter closing arguments will get under way before she considers her verdicts.