Not on trial but also in the spotlight are military security – specifically, how well the military secures its secrets in a combat zone – and the extent to which the Army should have foreseen problems with a private barely out of his teens who one superior officer had warned was “a mess of a child.”
As detailed by the Pentagon, Manning is charged with “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; transmitting defense information; fraud and related activity in connection with computers; and for violating Army Regulations 25-2 ‘Information Assurance’ and 380-5 ‘Department of the Army Information Security Program.’ ” There are 22 charges in all.
“Aiding the enemy” is a capital offense, but military officials say they will not seek the death penalty but rather life in prison without possibility of parole.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Manning’s Article 32 hearing Friday (expected to last about a week) is to determine whether he should be court martialed. The hearing will be held at Fort Meade, Md.
Manning’s civilian attorney is David Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who spent 12 years on active duty in the judge advocate corps.
Mr. Coombs hopes to show that the Army did not adequately monitor Manning’s erratic behavior – at one point the bolt reportedly was removed from his weapon, making it inoperable – and that the leaked information may have been politically and diplomatically embarrassing but it wasn't all that harmful to national security.
That’s why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is on his list of requested witnesses. She has been quoted as saying that the leaked documents “did not represent significant consequences to foreign policy.”
Also on Coombs’s witness wish list is President Obama, the US commander in chief and Manning’s superior. Coombs will argue that Obama prejudiced the case when he said last year that Manning “broke the law.”
It is unlikely that either Secretary Clinton or Mr. Obama will testify. The government is opposing all requested defense witnesses except for the 10 witnesses also requested by the government.
Manning’s case has generated worldwide interest and in some cases protest – particularly for the many months he was held in solitary confinement. It’s the largest and most controversial case involving WikiLeaks, the self-styled whistle-blower website that released to several newspapers the hundreds of thousands of cables, videos, and other information allegedly provided by Manning.
Manning was a military analyst in Iraq where, despite his low rank, he had wide access to sensitive and classified information. Among other things, Manning allegedly downloaded and leaked video footage of an attack by a US Apache helicopter gunship that killed Iraqi civilians, including two employees of the Reuters news agency.
During the months when Manning worked with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Iraq, it was apparently easy for him to find, download, and copy sensitive military information. Writing in an online chat, he claims to have had “unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”
“I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file,” he wrote. “No one suspected a thing … I listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.”
“No one suspected a thing,” he allegedly wrote to a former computer hacker who eventually tipped off the FBI and Army officials. “I didn’t even have to hide anything.”
In July 2010, WikiLeaks released some 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan ranging from individual unit reports to broader strategy discussions, including information on civilian casualties, the strength of the Taliban, friendly fire episodes, and links between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban.
Three months later, WikiLeaks disclosed nearly 392,000 US Army field reports – the largest military leak in US history – dubbed the “Iraq War Logs.” Among other things, the information included details of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners, secret civilian death counts, and Iran’s involvement with Shiite militias operating in Iraq.
In his exchanges, Manning talks about a devastating breakup with his boyfriend in Boston, and says, “I'm a mess…. I'm in the desert, with a bunch of hyper-masculine trigger happy ignorant rednecks as neighbors. And the only safe place I seem to have is this satellite internet connection."
Earlier this month, the Army reported that 15 people had been disciplined for failures involving Manning’s behavior and security status. One noncommissioned officer was reduced in rank for dereliction of duty.
Focusing on such failures up the chain of command may be a way of "telegraphing to the other side that it's going to be a nasty case, with a lot of dirty linen being laundered," Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who teaches military justice at Yale University, told Politico.com.
"It's a nice subject for an investigation,” Mr. Fidell added. “But the fact that other people permitted it to happen doesn't get him off the hook.”
In one of his online chat posts, Manning says, “I want people to see the truth."
That rationale may resound with Manning’s supporters, many of whom plan to rally on his behalf outside the gates of Fort Meade. But it carries little weight with the US Army and others concerned with the fallout of this massive leak and security breach.
"Leaking classified information and compromising US national security is always an extremely serious offense,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan told the Associated Press. “The ramifications of leaking classified material can be deadly for our men and woman on the front lines."