It was during his tour in Iraq in 2010 as he was serving as an intelligence analyst that Pfc. Bradley Manning watched a video stored in the US military’s database that showed two pilots accidentally shooting civilians, among them children and two Reuters reporters.
What particularly bothered him, he said during a statement he read in a February pretrial court hearing, was not only that innocent civilians were killed. It was the cavalier banter of the US military pilots, whose cockpit audio was recorded along with the video.
The pilots were urging a mortally wounded civilian, who was attempting to crawl to safety, to just "pick up a weapon" so they could shoot him. When they realized they had accidentally killed children by firing on a van that was trying to rescue the Reuters reporters, they said, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”
When Reuters news filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the video, US Central Command, which was running the war in Iraq, replied that “the video might no longer exist,” Private Manning said. Another US military spokesperson told reporters that CENTCOM did not believe that the video was authentic.
It was at that point, Manning said in February, that he “believed there was a compelling need” for him to release the video to the WikiLeaks website himself.
To Manning's defenders, these comments go to the heart of who he is: a conscientious and seminal whistle-blower in an administration highly averse to leaks. They add that his case is no less important – and bears striking similarities – to the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study examining how the United States had become embroiled in the Vietnam War and, ultimately, how the government had misled the American people.
To critics, the Manning's WikiLeaks trove was nothing like the Pentagon Papers – it did not expose systemic lying by high-ranking government officials, but rather contravened clear rules for whistle-blowing simply to embarrass the military. Some have even called him a traitor.
The distinction might not ultimately have an effect on Manning's court-martial, which began Monday at Fort Meade in Maryland. The laws on whistle-blowing are clear, and Manning appears to have clearly broken them, legal experts say.
But Manning's trial has come to represent more than an ordinary court-martial. It has become a vessel for the impassioned debate over how America has carried out its "war on terror" from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, and how much the public has a right to know.
“I know we’re early in the century, but I think this will be one of the most important trials of the 21st century,” says Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security program.
Ms. Radack represented Thomas Drake, a former member of the US military who was accused under the Espionage Act of leaking information about a National Security Agency program that he said violated Fourth Amendment privacy laws. She and others have compared Manning's plight to that of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.
Mr. Ellsberg agrees: “That man is not only a hero of mine, but I hope he knows he’s a hero to many people.”
“Of course there are differences” in the two cases, Ellsberg said at a roundtable discussion held Sunday at a protest rally for Manning in Washington.
“The stuff I put out was ‘top secret,’ ” he adds, noting that the material Manning released was given the lower classification rating of “secret.”
What’s more, the Pentagon Papers “didn’t rise to the same level of war crimes that was revealed by Bradley Manning,” he argues. “Manning showed numerous violations of law, not only under [President] Obama but going back to [former President George W.] Bush,” including, Ellsberg adds, “continuing to hand people over in the face of likelihood of torture.”
This last point is one that Manning stressed in his pretrial statement in February. To illustrate it, Manning recalled an incident in March 2010 in which he was tasked by superior officers to look into a case of Iraqi police who detained 15 people for printing anti-Iraqi literature.
Manning was asked, he said, to figure out who these “bad guys” were.
As he dug into the case, Manning concluded that none of the individuals had ties to terrorist groups. He then received translations of the “anti-Iraqi” literature, which was a critique of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and detailed corruption within its cabinet as well as the “financial impact of that corruption on the Iraqi people,” Manning said in his pretrial hearing.
He forwarded this information to his superiors, noting the discrepency between the charges the Iraqi police were making and the translation of the actual materials. He was told to “drop it” and “find out where these print shops printing anti-Iraqi literature might be.”
He complained to his boss, who was sympathetic but unwilling to act, Manning said. “I knew that if I continued to assist Baghdad police, those people would be arrested ... very likely tortured, and not seen again for a very long time, if ever.”
But even if there were individual cases of misconduct, the indiscriminate nature of the WikiLeaks release – which included reams of embarrassing diplomatic cables – was highly damaging to national security and different from the specific nature of the Pentagon Papers, some critics argue.
Ellsberg, for example, decided to keep confidential the volumes of the Pentagon Papers that described the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Vietnam War, which included “derogatory comments about the perfidiousness of specific persons involved, and statements which might be offensive to nations or governments,” noted Floyd Abrams, who was the lawyer for The New York Times during the Pentagon Papers proceedings, in a December 2010 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Abrams also pointed to other differences. “The Pentagon Papers revelations dealt with a discrete topic, the ever-increasing level of duplicity of our leaders over a score of years in increasing the nation’s involvement in Vietnam while denying it. It revealed official wrongdoing or, at the least, a pervasive lack of candor by the government to its people.”
“WikiLeaks is different,” he argues. “It revels in the revelation of ‘secrets’ simply because they are secret.”
Manning argues that he was well aware of what he was releasing. He said that he began looking through documents related to detainments at Guantánamo because of President Obama’s campaign assertions that the facility is a stain on America’s reputation and should be closed.
“I’m the type of person who likes to know how things work and as an analyst this means I always want to figure out the truth,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with just scratching the surface and producing canned or cookie-cutter assessments.”
As he began reading diplomatic cables, he says, he agreed with Mr. Obama. He also noticed that the diplomatic cables had two levels of security classifications.
The first level was “not for distribution,” meaning the cables were highly sensitive. The second classification was for people who had access to the US military’s computer network, which included thousands of US troops, Defense Department civilian employees, and civilian contractors.
Manning decided to release the second set of cables, but not the more sensitive ones, he told the judge in the February hearing.
In neither the Manning case nor the Ellsberg case, however, is whistle-blowing a viable defense, says Richard Rosen, former commandant of the Judge Advocate General School for the US Army and director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law.
“When you’re put in a position of confidence to protect these documents, it’s not for an individual to decide what to release,” says Mr. Rosen. “I think you can be a whistle-blower in the military. The problem is how he did it.”
“Whistle-blower statues are very specific – an individual has the right to communicate directly to a member of Congress, to an inspector general of the service, or to an immediate commander,” says a senior US military lawyer who asked to comment on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the press. “He doesn’t have the right to go to the press or WikiLeaks.”
Ellsberg was also providing documents that were historical in nature, “not about ongoing operations,” Rosen argues.
What’s more, “Ellsberg wasn’t in the military. When you are in the military, you take an oath. It’s not for some specialist [Manning's rank before he was demoted to private first class] to determine what information should be declassified,” he adds. “He could have written his congressman saying, 'Look, here is information.' He took a risk. Maybe he thought that it was better in the public interest, and he may have to pay the consequences for it.”
Ellsberg was to be prosecuted under the same statute with which Manning is charged – specifically, “aiding the enemy,” which carries with it the death penalty.
That could be difficult for the government to prove, Rosen says. “He had to have actual knowledge that by dumping this information it would aid the enemy. It’s not enough that he released information ... thinking it would help people.”
But Manning also faces a lesser charge that “requires only that he had reason to know” that the enemy could be aided – in other words, that the leaked information could be released on the Internet and Osama bin Laden, for example, might read the Internet, the US military attorney says.
Ellsberg was ultimately not charged with aiding the enemy because it was revealed that US government officials attempted to break into his psychologist’s office to uncover damaging information against him. As a result of this prosecutorial misconduct, the charges against him were dismissed.
Neither Ellsberg or Manning were charged with treason, which is concisely and specifically defined in the US Constitution: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
“No one wanted to claim that I’d adhered to the Viet Cong, and no one claims that Manning adhered to the Taliban or wished them well,” Ellsberg said.
Still, as with Manning, he was often called a traitor. “It’s very unpleasant, particularly for someone who thinks of himself as a patriot,” Ellsberg said.
But he had a ready response for a journalist who once asked him what it was like to be labeled a traitor. “This country was founded by traitors. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence when they pledged their lives and their sacred honor knew they could be hanged for treason," he recalled saying. "And some of them were.”