The essence of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s defense in his military court martial is that, yes, he released a trove of classified data to the controversial whistle-blower organization WikiLeaks, but that information did not seriously harm US national security – and it certainly did not aid the enemy in the war on terrorism.
Pfc. Manning’s defense team also hopes to paint the young soldier as an idealist who became disillusioned by some of what he learned in Iraq, and that he was merely trying to save lives by revealing secrets about US operations there.
The case is being argued before presiding judge Col. Denise Lind. Colonel Lind, who has ruled out any defense testimony regarding Manning’s motives in leaking information. But over prosecution objections, she is allowing defense witnesses who had been communicating with Manning to testify as to his state of mind while he was in Iraq.
In an online chat with a friend back in the United States, Manning had said he was “concerned about making sure that everyone, soldiers, marines, contractors, even the local nationals, get home to their families,” according to the testimony of Lauren McNamara.
Referring to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Manning wrote that "some of them are actually pretty dangerous indeed ... some of them weren't dangerous before, but are now in fact dangerous because we imprisoned them for so long….”
Morris Davis, the retired Air Force colonel who served as the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo, testified that much of the information in the “detainee assessment briefs” revealed by Manning was easily available from open sources, including government sources.
Army Sgt. David Sadtler testified that Manning was upset when he learned that civilians were being arrested for protesting in Iraq.
Another witness, Army Chief Warrant Officer Joshua Ehresman, an intelligence analyst who supervised Manning in Iraq, said Manning "was our best analyst by far.”
“For most soldiers, you would have to spell it out,” he testified. “With Manning, he would come up with exactly what you were looking for. He was our go-to guy."
The prosecution, which rested its case last week, says Manning leaked more than 700,000 classified files, combat videos, and diplomatic cables while he was a junior intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
At the least, many of the cables candidly and sometimes critically assessing officials from other countries (some of them allies) were embarrassing for the US. The video showed a US attack helicopter firing on what turned out to be unarmed civilians in Iraq. Eleven men were killed in the Apache helicopter attack, including two Reuters journalists – something Manning found particularly upsetting and therefore worthy of publicizing.
Specifically, Manning is charged with aiding the enemy (Al Qaeda); wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, knowing that it is accessible to the enemy; theft of public property or records; transmitting defense information; fraud and related activity in connection with computers; and violating Army regulations and an information security program. There are 21 charges in all.
“Aiding the enemy” is a capital offense, but prosecutors have said they will not seek the death penalty if Manning is found guilty of what amounted to the largest leak of classified information in US history. The prosecution, which called some 80 witnesses over the first five weeks of the trial, is seeking life in prison for Manning.
Some experts see the more recent case involving National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – another relatively junior cog in the vast US intelligence apparatus who leaked secret information – as possibly influencing the outcome in Manning’s case. Both cases are closely tied to WikiLeaks: for Manning, as the publisher of the data he provided; for Snowden, as a go-between in his attempt to avoid prosecution by finding asylum in another country.
"Anybody looking at this [Manning] case is going to say, 'We have to throw the book at this guy, or where does it end?' " Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who now teaches military justice at Yale University Law School, told the Reuters news agency.
In presenting their case, Manning’s defense team is also looking beyond the question of whether he will be convicted to any penalty phase that could follow, hoping to get as light a sentence as possible.