The case of the young US Army private tied to the largest leak of government secrets in US history took a major turn Thursday when Pfc. Bradley Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges against him – specifically acknowledging in a lengthy statement that he sent hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website founded by controversial Internet activist Julian Assange.
What Manning did not do was plead guilty to the more serious charges related to aiding the enemy in wartime – charges he still must face in a military court martial and for which he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Still, the charges he has agreed to – misusing classified documents – could mean a maximum of 20 years in prison for the 25-year-old Army intelligence analyst, who has been in custody for nearly three years.
To his supporters, Manning is a whistle-blowing hero whose actions in leaking documents and videos revealed war crimes, hastened the end of the Iraq war, and helped advanced the pro-democracy movement known as the “Arab Spring.”
In a 35-page courtroom statement he was allowed to make Thursday at Fort Meade, Md., Manning said, "I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information ... this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
US military counterinsurgency strategies seemed to ignore "the complex dynamics of the people living in the environment,” he said.
"I thought these cables were a prime example of the need for a more open diplomacy," Manning said. "I believed that these cables would not damage the United States. However, I believed these cables would be embarrassing."
Many of the cables – including frank diplomatic exchanges concerning foreign diplomats – indeed were embarrassing. In all, Manning through WikiLeaks made public hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, State Department diplomatic cables, files on detainees at the Guantánamo Bay US naval base, other classified records, and battlefield video clips – the most controversial of which showed US attack helicopter pilots killing what turned out to be a group of unarmed civilian men, including two journalists from the Reuters news agency.
To the Pentagon and the Obama administration, Manning’s actions went beyond diplomatic embarrassment to national security in wartime, beyond violating military regulations to engaging in espionage and aiding the enemy. The government’s tough line against Manning – assuming it doesn’t just accept his guilty plea to lesser charges and let it go at that – also is part of the administration’s declared goal of cracking down on leaks.
“The US government is planning to call an American, possibly one of the 22 Navy Seals involved in the Abbottabad [Pakistan] raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to give evidence at the trial of Bradley Manning about how he discovered digital material later revealed to contain WikiLeaks disclosures,” the Guardian newspaper reports.
“By showing that Bin Laden personally asked for, and received, four files' worth of the WikiLeaks material supplied by Manning [according to lead prosecution lawyer Ashden Fein, as cited by the Guardian], the prosecution would prove one element of the first charge it has preferred against the soldier – that he ‘knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy through indirect means.’ ”
In his statement Thursday, Manning denied that “he had reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
During the months 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 boasted. “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.”
“Weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counterintelligence, inattentive signal analysis,” Manning wrote. “A perfect storm.”
“No one suspected a thing,” he wrote to a former computer hacker who eventually tipped off the FBI and Army officials. “I didn’t even have to hide anything.”
For several months, Manning was held in virtual isolation on suicide watch, sometimes without regular clothing, in a constantly lighted cell at the maximum-security military prison in Quantico, Va.
The judge, Col. Denise Lind, ordered that 122 days be taken off any eventual sentence due to the treatment Manning received.
The court martial on the more serious charges Manning faces is scheduled to begin in June.