Bradley Manning trial closing arguments ask: Why did he do it?

Closing arguments in the Bradley Manning trial began Thursday. Prosecution and defense lawyers paint very different pictures of why the intelligence analyst leaked classified documents.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of the largest leak of classified information in the nation's history, departs after Day 2 of his court-martial at Fort Meade, Md., on June 4. In closing arguments, military prosecutors portray him as arrogant and reckless, while the defense seeks to show he was well-meaning but naive.

The trial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning – accused of leaking the largest trove of classified information in US history – is winding down as prosecution and defense present their arguments.

When they’re finished, military judge Col. Denise Lind will decide the future of the young intelligence analyst, who could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The facts in the case are not in dispute: While serving in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, Private Manning provided more than 700,000 classified files, combat videos, and diplomatic cables to the whistle-blower group WikiLeaks. Many of the cables were embarrassing for the US, candidly and sometimes critically assessing officials from other countries (some of them allies).

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 violating Army regulations and an information security program. There are 21 charges in all, including violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the Espionage Act of 1917.

Under the UCMJ, Manning was able to choose to have his case decided by a single judge rather than a panel of military officers.

In closing, the two sides in this lengthy legal battle are painting two very different pictures of Manning.

The defense says he’s an idealist who became disillusioned by what he learned in Iraq and that he was trying to save lives by revealing secrets about US operations there.

Attorneys for Manning argue that no real harm was done to US national security interests, pointing to testimony from one witness (retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba) who said that much of the information in the “detainee assessment briefs” revealed by Manning was easily available from open sources, including government sources.

The defense also seeks to undermine the most serious charge: aiding the enemy, specifically Al Qaeda and its affiliate in Iraq, by showing that Manning had no intention to do so.

In their closing arguments, military prosecutors say far from being an idealist, Manning was arrogant, reckless, and self-centered, looking for publicity.

"He delivered hundreds of thousands of documents ready-to-use to WikiLeaks, he delivered them for notoriety,” lead prosecution lawyer Maj. Ashden Fein told the court Thursday. “He searched for as much information as he knew would guarantee his fame, information that he knew that WikiLeaks wanted to publicly release.”

Major Fein also stressed the direct connection between what Manning leaked and Al Qaeda, including information gathered when Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs.

“He had actual knowledge that the enemies of the US used the Internet and WikiLeaks to gather information to be used against this country," Fein said. “He knew releasing such information on the Internet would be in the hands of terrorists and other adversaries of this nation.”

Beyond the specific charges and their possible resolution, the Manning case has drawn public attention worldwide for related, in some ways sensational reasons.

The most riveting of the leaked classified material was the video showing a US attack helicopter firing on what turned out to be unarmed civilians in Iraq. Eleven men were killed in the Apache helicopter attack, including two Reuters journalists – a reminder of the callousness of war involving collateral damage, including noncombatant casualties.

Then there was Manning’s treatment while waiting to be charged and tried under the UCMJ.

For months before his trial began, Manning was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at the US Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., treatment critics said was inhumane and unnecessary. Speaking at a seminar in 2011, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called that treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid” – a personal outburst that cost Mr. Crowley (a retired Air Force colonel) his job as assistant secretary for public affairs.

More recently, another case involving classified leaks connected to WikiLeaks – that of former National Security Agency (NSA) civilian contractor Edward Snowden – has enlivened the debate over national secrets, including entrusting such secrets to relatively low-level analysts able to peruse and disseminate such material for personal and political reasons.

Meanwhile, a key figure in both the Manning and Snowden cases – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – has spent more than a year holed-up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in order to avoid questioning about alleged sexual offenses in Sweden.

During the trial, Colonel Lind refused most efforts by Manning’s lawyers to have the charges against their client dismissed or limited – including the most serious charge, aiding the enemy.

But those who have worked with Lind (who also teaches at George Washington University Law School) describe her as a “model of fairness,” reports The Washington Post.

“She’ll go through every bit of evidence and every element of proof, and she will be 100 percent sure that the government meets its burden,” said Lisa Schenck, associate dean for academic affairs at the law school. “She is the most thorough person that you could put on that trial.”

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