Bradley Manning trial: 'Aiding the enemy' charges stand, but hard to prove

The judge in the military trial of Bradley Manning ruled Thursday she would not dismiss the 'aiding the enemy' charges. But prosecutors so far have proved neither intent nor harm, observers say. 

Patrick Semansky/AP
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning (2nd r.) is escorted to a waiting security vehicle outside of a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Monday, after appearing for a hearing at his court martial.

The judge in the military trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning ruled Thursday that she would not dismiss charges against him of “aiding the enemy.”

So, is this a big boost to the government’s case that Private Manning jeopardized US national security by leaking classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks?

Not necessarily, according to Manning trial-watchers who argue that the prosecution still has a considerable task ahead of proving that the young intelligence analyst “aided the enemy.”

“Basically, there has to be intent, and you have to demonstrate that that harm actually happened,” says Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy for Amnesty International. “They haven’t checked either box. They have not been able to demonstrate that harm.”

It made sense that the defense would make a motion to dismiss the charges altogether, but such motions are seldom granted, says a US military attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he is not authorized to discuss the case.

To have such a motion approved by the judge, Col. Denise Lind, the prosecution’s case “would have had to be very flimsy – almost an absence of any information going to the charge,” the lawyer said. “So it’s not a surprise that she didn’t dismiss the charge, but that does not mean that he’s going to be convicted of it.”

To date, the prosecution’s evidence has been flimsy, says Jeff Fuller, manager of the Bradley Manning Defense Fund.

“I sat through the entire proceedings and I haven’t heard a single word about how he damaged national security, hurt anyone, harmed anyone,” he says. “I was actually shocked by the prosecution not having more up their sleeve.”

The government has changed tacks in its portrayal of Manning during the course of the proceedings, initially painting him as a malcontent underachiever who could not fit into the Army in large part because he is gay.

“They really wanted the American public to see him as a malcontent, and I think him being young and gay didn’t help. They wanted you to see him as a guy who’s a wimp, who’s a wuss,” says Amnesty’s Ms. Brown.

By doing this, the government hopes to dampen the support that he receives from colleagues or from the American public, she argues.

This in turn has helped to distract from the substance of the intelligence that Manning released, in particular that the releases “contained information that was being hidden from the public not for the safety of the troops, but to hide the actual impact of the war on civilians,” argues Mr. Fuller.

Testimony has instead revealed that Manning was a highly skilled intelligence analyst who was admired by his superiors.

Manning’s supervisor called him “our best analyst by far.” 

Army Chief Warrant Officer Joshua Ehresman testified that despite the chaotic environment in the unit, Manning was “very detailed” and had the highest standard of productivity. “For most soldiers, you would have to spell it out. With Manning, he would come up with exactly what you were looking for. He was our go-to guy.”

This fact could help or hurt Manning. The prosecution could argue that because he is a skilled intelligence analyst, he should be well aware that groups like Al Qaeda could benefit from his WikiLeaks releases.

But analysts point out that simply because Manning “should have known” that some facts could aid the enemy does not mean that he intended to aid Al Qaeda, which is what the prosecution must prove in order to charge Manning with “aiding the enemy.”

What’s more, the defense could in turn argue that while Manning did have access to databases on Iraq and Afghanistan that were top secret in nature, he chose not to release human intelligence databases, which could have placed US informants at risk of reprisal.

He also did not release procedures on techniques the enemy was using to plant roadside bombs, for example, and how US forces were trying to counteract them.

“Those things would have been very detrimental in a very direct way,” Fuller says. 

Rather, he adds, Manning viewed the information he released as “more historical in nature” that demonstrated a pattern of lack of accountability by the US government. 

“Our argument would be, okay, not a single person who has been implicated in torture on behalf of the US government – ordering it, arguing for it, or committing the torture – has been tried,” says Brown. 

“And yet a guy who revealed it is being prosecuted zealously. There’s something messed up about that.”

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