War and the whistleblower: Bradley Manning on trial

Photo: Bradley Manning Support Network

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The long-awaited trial of Bradley Manning, the whistleblower and army private suspected of passing on classified material to Wikileaks, opened on Monday as supportive demonstrations were held in dozens of cities.

Arrested in May 2010 after former hacker Adrian Lamo reported him to the FBI, Manning is said to have passed on vast numbers of military and diplomatic files -- allegedly the ones later published by Wikileaks -- while deployed to an army base near Baghdad.

The trial is a court martial presided over by Colonel Denise Lind at Fort Meade, Maryland. In December 2012, Lind accepted terms that Manning could plead guilty to ten lesser charges in exchange for a reduced sentence, though prosecutors rejected the pleas and announced in March that they will seek life in prison without parole. 

Manning has previously plead guilty to these charges of possessing, communicating and misusing classified information, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. During the February hearing at which he entered the partial guilty plea, Manning made an hour long statement defending his actions, saying that he wanted the public to know the "true costs of war" and believed that if they "had access to the information contained within the [databases], this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy." 

Importantly, Manning denied the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, which carries the possibility of the death penalty, although the government has indicated it will not be sought. Many reports of the trial's first day focused on the competing portraits painted by the prosecution and defence.

Government lawyer Joe Morrow asserted that Manning "violated the trust of his supervisors to gain the notoriety he craved," and claimed that during the raid on Osama bin Laden's villa, information was recovered showing that bin Laden had personally requested information from Wikileaks. Much of the prosecution's time was spent attempting to establish a close relationship between Manning and Julian Assange, who remains in the Embassy of Ecuador in London.

Bradley Manning's defence lawyer, David Coombs, portrayed him as deeply affected by the deaths of Iraqi civilians killed in a roadside bomb attack, emphasized his loyalty to his unit, and his status as a "young, naive, but good intentioned" humanist. 

The information is widely reported as that published by Wikileaks, which included hundreds of thousands of American diplomatic cables and military field reports and logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also included videos of airstrikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter having increased pressure on the Iraqi government to reject extension of the U.S. military presence there.

The Iraq War documents provide evidence for many different kinds of abuses by U.S. forces during the war, including evidence of an official policy to ignore torture by Iraqi police and soldiers. They also show that existing numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq were significant underestimates.

The Afghan War documents also contain previously unknown reports of civilian deaths and friendly fire incidents, including one from 2006 involving Canadian soliders. They confirm Pakistani and Iranian involvement in the Afghan insurgency, show evidence of hiring of child prostitutes by U.S. military contractors, and provide numbers and dates related to the prisoner torture and abuse scandal at Bagram.

The leaks are the largest U.S. military leaks since the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and were condemned by U.S. officials. Human rights groups expressed concern that they could expose Afghan informants to violence, while United Nations officials called for investigations to be opened by the U.S. into the reported abuses.

The diplomatic cables, met with great interest among the media and public, exposed orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on UN officials, among a great variety of instances of government corruption, human rights abuses and corporate lobbying. It also contained embarrassing criticism by embassy staff of their host governments. Frequently cited as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, particularly for shedding light on corruption in Tunisia's government, the diplomatic cables were published in their entirety after their security was compromised.

Though the releases themselves and Wikileaks received significant media attention, coverage of Bradley Manning's detention and treatment has been sparse and sporadic. Media covering the trial are also severely limited by the lack of documentation provided: written briefs, motions and rulings have mostly been withheld, and even an official transcript has not been released. Crowdfunded stenographers were denied access Monday, however pretrial hearings have been meticulously recorded by independent journalist Alexa O'Brien.

After a three-month detention in Kuwait, Manning was held for months at the Marine Corps Brigg in Quantico, Virginia, where his solitary confinement was described as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture. Mendez has not been able to determine whether Manning was tortured, as U.S. authorities have not allowed him to interview Manning in private.

The case also sparked condemnation from American legal scholars, who condemned his solitary confinement and other unusual, humiliating conditions. Philip J. Crowley, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, resigned in March 2011 as a direct result of comments he made about Manning's mistreatment, calling it "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."

Responding to the trial's events on Monday night, former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel described the proceedings to rabble.ca as a "kangaroo trial." 

"I'm enraged over what's going on with Bradley Manning. Our only hope is if the goddamn committee in Norway gives him the Nobel Peace Prize. ...This is the full court press by the military industrial complex to continue to acculturate our society to militarism," he said. Gravel aggressively filibustered extensions to the draft during the Vietnam War and entered the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. He is also advisory board member for the Bradley Manning Support Network.

Noam Chomsky told rabble.ca: "Bradley Manning is charged with having carried out actions of an honorable citizen, who believes that the people of his country should know what their leaders are doing and what actions are being carried out in their name. His treatment has been abominable, and he should be praised, not subjected to punishment by state authorities who wish to hide behind a veil of secrecy, for no legitimate reason."

The trial has come during an intensified crackdown on whistleblowers in the Obama administration, three weeks after the Associated Press reported the seizure of its phone records by the Justice Department. It is expected to last until August and to include nearly 200 witnesses, though up to 50 of them may provide evidence in secret.

Cory Collins holds a social work degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland and has written for PeoplesWorld.org, AslanMedia.com and TheMuse.ca

Photo: Bradley Manning Support Network

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