A nagging question at the heart of the case against alleged WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning is who, exactly, does the U.S. government want to keep from knowing its secrets.
A military judge who is presiding over Manning’s court-martial told prosecutors April 26 that the government bears the burden of proof to show that the young Army private realized he was “aiding the enemy” when he allegedly leaked thousands of confidential documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning, 24, is facing 22 charges including aiding the enemy, wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet knowing that it is accessible to the enemy, theft of public property or records and transmitting defense information.
Although the most serious charge — aiding the enemy — carries a possible death penalty, prosecutors have said they won’t seek it. But they are trying to imprison Manning for the rest of his life.
Manning is suspected of leaking more than 251,000 secret diplomatic messages from U.S. embassies worldwide to the activist website. He was held in maximum-security custody, which essentially is solitary confinement, from July 2010 to April 2011 at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Va. (He has now been moved to less restrictive confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.)
While at Quantico, Manning was left alone in a small cell for 23 hours a day, allowed only an hour’s exercise in a small, fenced area. At various times, Manning has been deprived of his clothing and his eyeglasses, allegedly to keep from harming himself.
The harsh conditions of Manning’s imprisonment were designed to break him psychologically and get him to confess to the crimes, his supporters insist. Earlier this year, a United Nations expert on torture issued a report that concluded the U.S. government was culpable of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” toward Manning, and that the confinement might also constitute torture under international law.
Sadly, the report barely made a ripple in American media, although it was covered extensively in other nations. In fact, various groups in Europe have nominated Manning for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The judge in Manning’s case, Col.
Denise Lind, refused to dismiss the charge of aiding the enemy against him, as defense attorneys had sought during the April hearing. But Lind cautioned prosecutors they must prove Manning knew he was actively aiding the enemy when he allegedly leaked the documents; if they don’t, the charge might be dismissed later, she added.
At the same hearing, the judge listened to arguments on the government’s motion to block any discussion during the trial of whether the revelations contained in the leaked documents caused any actual harm to the United States. Lind didn’t rule on the motion.
Manning’s attorneys want access to confidential reports prepared by the Defense and State departments that gauge the fallout of the disclosures. They say the reports will show the leaks didn’t cause any damage, except perhaps to the United States’ reputation.
Here are some of the items revealed in the documents: The United States had information on 15,000 civilian deaths in Iraq after the U.S. invasion that it hadn’t disclosed publicly; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered diplomats to spy on overseas leaders at the United Nations and elsewhere and try to collect their DNA; Arab leaders urged the U.S. to launch a preemptive attack against Iran to stop its nuclear program; a source alleged China launched a cyber-attack against Google; the Obama administration is waging a secret war using missiles against suspected terrorists in Yemen; and the U.S. suspects Iran has received 19 long-range missiles from North Korea.
So, let’s put the pieces together about the government’s case.
On one hand, prosecutors are alleging Manning gave aid to the enemy. On the other, the arguments they’ve made in trying to block access to the reports assessing damage show there wasn’t any. If that’s accurate, we’re left to wonder what aid, if any, the enemy received.
Here is how writer Kevin Gosztola, who covered the hearing, has described the situation: “Essentially, the government is conceding there is no harm as a way to prevent the defense from viewing government records that likely show there was no harm … it is purely aimed at concealing what the government failed to uncover and prevent them from being exposed for shouting, ‘the sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ hysterically when the releases by WikiLeaks posed absolutely no threat to U.S. national security whatsoever.”
There is little doubt that the principal players already knew the information contained in the leaked documents.
Surely, Iraqi civilians were aware of the mass casualties in their homeland; leaders in Yemen were aware that missiles were falling around them; executives at Google were aware they were being hacked and blocked by the Chinese government.
The only people left in the dark about any of this — at least until WikiLeaks published the material — was the American public. It’s clear our government doesn’t want us to know the actions that it undertakes in our name (and using our money).
A former associate of Manning’s who has since become a government informant has said the Army private told him he leaked the documents because “I want people to see the truth.” The associate added that Manning told him the documents show “almost criminal political back dealings” that explain “how the first world exploits the third, in detail.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has accused the government of “overreach” in Manning’s case, and said the charge of aiding the enemy in these circumstances would be unconstitutional.
“The government does not contend that Manning gave any information to Al-Qaeda, or even that he intended that Al-Qaeda receive it,” wrote Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Rather, it claims that Manning ‘indirectly’ aided Al-Qaeda by causing intelligence information to be posted on WikiLeaks’ website, knowing that Al Qaeda has access to the Internet.”
Wizner added, “So, if the government is right that a soldier ‘indirectly’ aids the enemy when he posts information to which the enemy might have access, then the threat of criminal prosecution hangs over any service member who gives an interview to a reporter, writes a letter to the editor, or posts a blog to the Internet.”
That is far scarier than anything in the leaked documents. But that’s what our government wants: to frighten potential whistleblowers into silence.
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