Bradley Manning: Will the alleged WikiLeaks ally have a compelling defense?

Pfc. Bradley Manning is expected to enter a plea in response to 22 charges lodged by military prosecutors, including turning over to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents.

Patrick Semansky/AP
In this December 2011 file photo, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted from a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md. The arraignment of Manning begins Thursday afternoon, Feb. 23, at Fort Meade near Baltimore.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of one of the largest cyberleaks of secret military and foreign-policy information in US history, is set to be arraigned Thursday before a military tribunal in Fort Meade, Md.

Manning is expected to enter a plea in response to 22 charges lodged by military prosecutors, including downloading onto a flash drive and turning over to the WikiLeaks website hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents.

Prosecutors contend that his actions amount to "aiding the enemy," which could result in a life sentence for Manning if he is convicted on that charge.

At a preliminary hearing in December, cyber forensic investigators testified that materials – such as cables from US embassies and a video of a US helicopter attack in Iraq – could be connected to the computers on which Manning worked as an Army intelligence analyst.

Key points in Manning’s defense are expected to include that many of the classified cables, videos, and other data he is alleged to have leaked did not harm US national security – or were overclassified in the first place. Another argument: Manning was given too much access for his junior rank.

The case highlights the need for tougher security protocols for access to computers – and the increasing threat that insiders with access to sensitive information pose to the military, government, and business, cyber law experts say.

"This is the first case that highlights the concept of hacktivists, really bringing to light organizations like Anonymous and their drive to expose things for what they are – not money-driven, but ideology-driven," says Fernando Pinguelo, a trial lawyer and partner at the firm Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, who specializes in technology law.

Defense lawyers, he notes, are expected to argue that Manning was not the only one with access to the particular computer terminal from which the sensitive information was downloaded.

Trend lines for insider attacks are not as dramatic as those for outside attacks. Indeed, they have mostly held steady for a decade. But a 2011 survey found that nearly half of the organizations polled reported an “insider incident” that year, suggesting the threat remains significant – and perhaps overlooked.

This CyberSecurity Watch Survey also suggests that insider attacks are in many cases more damaging than outsider attacks. One-third of respondents said they were costlier than other types of attack. Insider incidents include casual posting of trade secrets to social networking sites, sometimes quite innocently.

"Insider threats are rising along with the rise of social networking sites," says Michael Rustad, co-director of the Intellectual Property program at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "It's so easy to post something on Facebook or a social network. This kind of conduct has really taken off."

Some of Manning's supporters plan to convene in a vigil outside Fort Meade Thursday, saying that if he did release those files, he is a hero for blowing the whistle.

"If Manning had been a member of the US Marine squad that admitted to systematically murdering two dozen innocent Iraqi men, women, and children in Haditha, Iraq, he'd be walking free today," said activist Max Obuszewski, according to the Baltimore Sun. "Instead, he faces the real prospect of life in prison for telling the truth."

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