It may be three months or more before the verdict in the trial of Bradley Manning, the US Army private accused of handing 700,000 classified files to WikiLeaks. But even before yesterday’s court martial began, the case had cast America’s system of military justice, already discredited by the wretched saga of Guantanamo Bay, in a yet more unflattering light.
Three years after his arrest, Mr Manning is a polarising figure. To his critics, he is a traitor; to supporters, a noble whistleblower. The truth is somewhere in between. Governments have every right to expect employees not to divulge sensitive information with which they are entrusted. And many lives were put at risk by WikiLeaks’ disclosures. But while Mr Manning behaved wrongly and recklessly, his treatment has been a disgrace.
Not only must the authorities bear some responsibility themselves, for allowing so lowly an intelligence analyst access to so much classified data unconnected with his work. Since his arrest, Mr Manning has suffered the vengeful overreach for which the US judicial system, especially its military justice, is now notable.
That he was held in isolation, sometimes naked, during his long detention was shameful. Meanwhile, many pre-trial rulings have been veiled in a secrecy verging on the absurd, given that the material leaked has long been in the public arena. The military’s decision to press the charge of “aiding the enemy” – carrying a sentence of life without parole – is also questionable. Mr Manning has pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years; yet prosecutors are keen to use the case pour décourager les autres.
So too, it would seem, is the Obama administration, which is already pursuing an unprecedented campaign against leakers. The Manning case – perhaps the highest profile US court martial since those following the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam – fits neatly into the pattern. Mr Manning’s crimes were grave. But the state’s response is no less a cause for concern.