Op-ed: Bradley Manning and the Real Trial of the Century

Bradley Manning's trial, which began this week, will have implications for all future whistle-blowers.

BY Victoria A. Brownworth

June 04 2013 6:00 AM ET

On Saturday, women from the activist group Code Pink strung the gates of Fort Meade, Md., with Nobel Peace Prize emblems for Bradley Manning. The demonstration was one of many scheduled throughout the coming week to call attention to Manning’s court-martial trial, which began Monday at Fort Meade, about 30 miles north of Washington, D.C.
 
A gay former Army intelligence specialist, Manning served under the repressive "don't ask, don't tell" policy, rescinded in 2011. Manning received several medals for distinguished service while stationed in Iraq. 
 
Manning, 25, has been in prison for more than 1,100 days — since he was arrested in Baghdad May 26, 2010. He has spent three birthdays in prison. He was held in indefinite detention and solitary confinement for much of that time under extreme conditions that included not being allowed to lie down or close his eyes except during certain nighttime hours; not being allowed a pillow, sheet, or blanket; being forced to be naked and searched every morning; and not being allowed out of his windowless cell. 
 
Because of his extreme treatment and the crimes of which he is accused, Manning has been deemed a prisoner of conscience by human rights groups worldwide. Amnesty International has called his treatment "torture" and has called for his release. He was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. 
 
Details of Manning’s treatment and discussion of his upcoming trial have been discussed mostly by his supporters and a few devoted journalists in the blogosphere. The mainstream media has largely positioned Manning’s story as that of a misguided soldier at best or a villainous traitor at worst, as if that is the substance of his trial. 
 
Because the majority of the mainstream media has been playing catch-up on the Manning story, its focus differs from those of us who have covered this Manning from the beginning. His case is far less well-known than celebrity trials of Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony or O.J. Simpson. He’s never been on Access Hollywood or Inside Edition, and the major networks have repeatedly skewed the facts of his story. 
 
Yet make no mistake: Manning’s is the real trial of the century. Manning is essentially being tried for treason. One of the charges against him is "aiding the enemy," which is treasonous (and a charge he categorically denies). Another is larceny — meaning he stole the documents he is alleged to have distributed to WikiLeaks.
 
The Obama administration and the Department of Justice have referred to Manning’s case as "the largest security breach in U.S. history." 
 
Manning is not a spy, but he’s being treated like one, prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. In fact, emails in the months leading up to the release of the documents between Manning and Adrian Lamo specifically state that Manning knew he could have sold any of the documents he handled daily or given them to a foreign government. But, in his own words, he said the documents were "public data ... it belongs in the public domain ... information should be free."
 
That’s the real story here. What did the American people have a right to know and when did they have a right to know it? How much influence did the publication of these documents have on ending the combat portion of the Iraq war? How much transparency did they force in an administration that the American Civil Liberties Union has called "the least transparent in U.S. history"? Manning has already been credited with influencing the Arab Spring, which has thus far toppled five dictatorships. And Vietnam War leaker Daniel Ellsberg has said on several occasions that Manning’s actions have "saved tens of thousands of lives."
 
What hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream media is how much Manning’s treatment and trial have to do with the consistent repression of whistle-blowers and investigative reporters by the Obama administration. 
 
Journalists have had to file suit to have access to Manning’s trial. In a complaint filed in federal district court last week, a group of journalists asked for a preliminary injunction to compel the judge to "grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings." 
 
That’s how difficult it is to get the real story about Manning’s trial.
 
At his preliminary hearing in February, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the lesser of the 22 charges against him through his attorney David Coombs. Those charges included possessing and willfully communicating to an unauthorized person all the main elements of the WikiLeaks disclosure. That included the "collateral murder" video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, portions of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, files on detainees in Guantanamo, and intelligence memos.
 
The Obama administration could have accepted that plea deal and agreed to sentencing. Those charges carry a two-year maximum sentence each but could have added up to 20 years in prison had Manning received the maximum.
 
The Obama administration, however, is making an example of Manning. His trial is a classic show trial of the sort usually seen only in countries that are not democracies. Manning’s trial is meant to dissuade any and all whistle-blowers from coming forward. It is also intended to act as a deterrent to any dissidence within the military, Pentagon, State Department, CIA, FBI or any other government agency — or beyond. The Obama administration has already prosecuted other whistle-blowers, notably John Kiriakou, the former CIA agent who was convicted in January of leaking a covert agent's name and sentenced to 30 months in prison. 
 
Kiriakou informed Americans about water-boarding being used against Al Qaeda prisoners by both the Bush and Obama administrations. (Water-boarding is called torture by human rights groups, both the Bush and Obama administrations have referred to it as an "enhanced interrogation technique.") 
 
Manning is likely to receive a far stiffer sentence than 30 months in prison, however. What’s more, many question whether Manning will — or can — even receive a fair trial, given the attitude the administration has already taken toward him and the treatment he has received thus far with no intervention from President Obama or any other member of the administration.
 
President Obama could pardon Manning; other leakers have been pardoned, even during other wars. 
 
It’s true Manning has admitted to having contact with the 750,000 classified documents, including diplomatic cables related to overt and covert wars, war logs related to both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, gun-site video footage of civilians being attacked in a U.S. Apache helicopter assault in Baghdad and another in Ganai, Afghanistan, as well as various other documents related to U.S. involvement in wars and covert military operations throughout the globe.
 
At his preliminary hearing, Manning detailed what he had learned while reading the documents he handled daily and how "fascinated" he had become by what he read and learned. Manning said, "With my insatiable curiosity and interest in geopolitics, I became fascinated with them. I read not only the cables on Iraq, but also about countries and events that I found interesting."
 
According to Manning. "The more I read, the more I was fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think these documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world."
 
But while Manning wanted people to know the truth, he also didn’t want to jeopardize national security or put lives at risk. Of the documents he is alleged to have released, Manning asserted, these were "the only ones I was not absolutely certain couldn’t harm the United States."
 
Because there has been so little attention given in the media to Manning’s case, few Americans have heard his painful descriptions not just of his own treatment by the government but of some of the more gruesome things he witnessed being done by the American military, notably the killing of civilians in the videos he watched.
 
The documents Manning leaked went to the global antisecrecy group WikiLeaks and its media partners. Many of the documents have been published in the most renowned newspapers, magazines, and journals in the world, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Guardian.
 
None of these publications have been called to account, however, unlike in 1971, when the Nixon administration petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to keep The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by Ellsberg. The Nixon administration was able to stop publication for several weeks until the Supreme Court ruled that the papers could be published.
 
Ellsberg held a high-level government security clearance at the time he leaked the documents to the media and had previously worked at the Pentagon under then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
 
The treatment of Ellsberg — who was made Time magazine Man of the Year in 1971 — is instructive as a parallel to Manning, because like Manning, Ellsberg was arrested and charged under the same Espionage Act of 1917 that the Obama administration has employed against Manning. 
 
Ellsberg noted when he surrendered on June 28, 1971, "I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could not longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision."
 
Manning has made several similar statements. Prior to his arrest Manning wrote how he had begun to realize that he was "actively involved in something I was completely against." 
 
At his preliminary hearing Manning read from a 35-page prepared statement for over an hour, explaining that he had leaked the documents in question. But he also gave extended explanations for his reason for doing so. 
 
The statement is smart, coherent, passionate, and declarative. Manning states, for example, "I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure-cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release, I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public. As I hoped, others were just as troubled, if not more troubled, than me by what they saw."
 
Manning’s primary rationale, however, was transparency. He simply did not think what the U.S. was doing was right and thought the public should know what was being done in their name and without their knowledge.
 
Manning has asked that his trial be conducted solely by the judge who presided at his preliminary hearing, Col. Denise Lind. There will not be the military equivalent of a jury.
 
Lind has already shown some level of fairness in her handling of Manning’s case. She ruled that any sentence should be reduced by 112 days because of the detention conditions under which he was held. Those were named by the U.N. Special Rapporteur as torture,"cruel, inhuman, and degrading."
 
The Manning trial is expected to take between two and three months, and the prosecution intends to call close to 150 witnesses. 
 
President Obama has already declared Manning guilty, stating unequivocally that he "broke the law," convicting Manning before he has even been tried.
 
And a new documentary, We Steal Secrets by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, provides a nice, creepy bolster for the "Manning is deviant" perspective both the Obama administration and the mainstream media have taken. Manning is presented by Gibney as a confused queer who doesn’t know from one day to the next whether he’s gay or a woman. The film positions Manning as addled by hormones.
 
The film also reinforces the Obama administration’s position that whistle-blowing is wrong. Even though candidate Obama promised to support whistle-blowers as well as provide a transparent government. In 2008 Obama said there was nothing more important than brave men and women willing to risk everything to bring the truth to the American people.
 
But now Obama wants life in prison for Manning, a whistle blower of the very stripe he lauded a few years ago. The recent revelations about the Obama Justice Department spying on reporters like Fox’s James Rosen and the Associated Press clarify why Americans are lucky that Manning let us see what our own government would not. 
 
With the trial, Manning begins a literal fight for his life with the deck stacked against him. Will he get a fair trial? Can he get a fair trial? That may be solely up to Colonel Lind. President Obama, the Justice Department, and the mainstream media seem to have already convicted Manning and done everything possible to silence the press that would publish the facts of his story.
 
 
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and winner of several NLGJA and SPJ awards for her investigative series on LGBT issues. She is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including the award-winning Too Queer: Essays From a Radical Life and Coming Out of Cancer: Writings From the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic. She has been writing about Bradley Manning since his arrest in May 2010. Follow her @VABVOX.
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