The stakes got higher this week for Army Pvt. First Class Bradley Manning, now that the charges against him in the WikiLeaks case include a capital offense: aiding the enemy. But even as he is denounced from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon for his alleged role in the massive documents release, the young soldier is for now attracting some high-profile defenders who argue that his case has more to do with whistleblowing than treason.
Daniel Ellsberg, who was arrested for releasing classified documents describing the conduct of the Vietnam War to The New York Times in 1971, says the parallels between his case and Manning's are “quite striking.” President Nixon, he notes, had accused him of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Moreover, Mr. Ellsberg continues, it's hard to see how the enemy – unnamed in new charges against Bradley but presumably Al Qaeda or the Taliban – was aided by the WikiLeaks document release. In fact, the opposite may be true, he said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. Al Qaeda “wants these wars to continue because they are the main basis for recruiting” other insurgents, he says, but release of the documents to WikiLeaks could be seen as an effort to galvanize the American public to call for an end to the wars.
The 22 new charges against Manning in the WikiLeaks case "more accurately reflect the broad scope of the crimes that Pvt. First Class Manning is accused of committing," said Capt. John Haberland, spokesman for the Military District of Washington.
Critics argue, however, that the US military’s prosecution of Manning sets a dangerous precedent, equating the acts of a whistleblower with high treason.
The Obama administration has brought five prosecutions against Manning and others for whistleblowing and leaks – “almost twice as many as all previous presidents put together,” says Ellsberg. “We see a campaign here against whistleblowing that’s actually unprecedented in legal terms.”
The sanctions Manning faces are dire. Military officials have said prosecutors will not seek the death penalty, but it is still possible that Manning could be sentenced to die if Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, the commanding general of the Military District of Washington, recommends it, say defense officials. Horst will oversee the trial.
Horst "could come back and say, ‘You know what? I dismiss all charges against PFC Manning.’ Or he could say, ‘I will seek capital punishment,’ ” says Shaunteh Kelly, chief of media relations for the US Army Military District of Washington. Horst could also simply “concur with what the prosecuting team has recommended,” which is life in prison, she notes.
While Manning stands accused of “aiding the enemy,” the Army's charging documents do not say precisely who “the enemy” is. Some speculate that the enemy could be interpreted as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
If that's the case, says Ellsberg, Manning’s alleged leaking of documents would have even stronger parallel with his own leak of the Pentagon papers to The New York Times.
The Army denies Mr. Assange is the unnamed enemy. “It’s not WikiLeaks, OK?” says the Army’s Ms. Kelly, adding that the military is not specifying “the enemy” for security reasons. “Given that this is a national security case during a time of war, identifying this information may potentially compromise ongoing military operations, the safety of our service members, and the criminal investigation,” she says.
Potentially pivotal to the case will be motive, say legal experts. Manning could argue that he had a reason to disobey lawful orders against releasing classified information, says retired Lt. Col. Jon Shelburne, a former US Marine Corps judge advocate general and interim director and clinic defense coordinator at the Roger Williams School of Law, in Bristol, R.I.
In logs of online chats Manning had with a friend, Ellsberg notes, Manning makes reference to opposing the US military’s decision to hand over Iraqi suspects to the Iraqi military “with the expectation that they were being tortured.” If US military officials knew that torture would plausibly be carried out against these suspects and did not stop or investigate it, this could justify Manning’s actions, Ellsberg adds.
Ellsberg also says he is surprised that there has not been more outcry over Manning’s treatment by the Army. But he recalls that he was vilified after the release of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg faced a dozen federal charges that would have put him in jail for life and “had the president and vice president saying that I was a traitor … and contributing to the deaths of Americans.”
Today, “I’m getting more appreciation … than in the past 40 years,” Ellsburg says. But he is concerned it is “just as a foil against Manning…. Daniel Ellsberg good, Manning bad.” The widespread reaction of the public and presidential leadership, however, “was the same” in both cases, he says.