Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s alleged release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents – many of them classified – represents what may have been the largest intelligence leak in US history. If found guilty as charged, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
But were the documents – downloaded from military computers and provided to news sources by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks – all that damaging? And should Manning’s superiors have known about and acted on the soldier’s acknowledged emotional instability?
In pretrial legal maneuvering, Manning’s threefold defense is emerging:
• Many of the classified cables, videos, and other information allegedly provided by Manning might have been diplomatically embarrassing, but they weren’t harmful to US national-security interests. (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been quoted as saying that the leaked documents “did not represent significant consequences to foreign policy.”)
• Much of what the young soldier allegedly leaked as a junior Army intelligence analyst while serving in Iraq never should have been classified in the first place. Over-classification has been the subject of debate for years, particularly since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
• There were failings up the chain of command that allowed Manning to easily copy information to a CD labeled “Lady Gaga.”
“No one suspected a thing,” he allegedly wrote to a former computer hacker who eventually tipped off the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Army officials. “I didn’t even have to hide anything.”
The Army reported last month 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.
Manning was known for troubling episodes that led one superior officer to describe him as “a mess of a child.” Manning himself – a slightly built, gay soldier serving at a time when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was being hotly debated – had written that he was “in the desert, with a bunch of hyper-masculine trigger happy ignorant rednecks as neighbors." He continued, "And the only safe place I seem to have is this satellite internet connection."
Specifically, 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.
On Thursday, the investigating officer in Manning’s Article 32 hearing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (similar to a grand jury proceeding) recommended that Manning be tried in a general court-martial.
The direction of Manning’s defense can be seen in the requests filed by attorney David Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who spent 12 years on active duty in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Initially, Coombs sought 48 defense witnesses, including then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But the officer in charge of the Article 32 hearing allowed just 12 witnesses, 10 of whom were sought by the prosecution as well.
In a deposition request filed Thursday, Coombs seeks the testimony of several witnesses he says can speak to the classification level of several key elements in the information Manning is charged with leaking. For example, Coombs writes that one witness (names are blacked out) can testify that the video showing a US helicopter attack that killed Iraqi civilians was not classified at the time Manning acquired it.
Assuming the recommendation for a general court-martial is approved up the military chain of command, the trial is expected to begin in several months.