Army Pvt. Bradley Manning admitted in a court filing Tuesday to leaking at least some of the classified US military and State Department documents that made Julian Assange's Wikileaks a controversial sensation three years ago, in an apparent bid to get an opportunity to explain his motives.
Part of a filing of his was read during a pretrial hearing yesterday, in which he said he'd provided classified material to WikiLeaks hoping to "spark a domestic debate on the role of our military and foreign policy in general."
Private Manning's guilty pleas, however, are not to the crimes he's been charged with and will not effect the prosecutions ongoing case. They're to lesser offenses, and will have no impact on whether he's convicted on the more serious charges sought by Army prosecutors. So why do it? Manning, who has only been allowed to speak during the pretrial process once before and who has been kept largely isolated from the press, friends, and supporters during his over 1,000 days in detention since his arrest in Iraq on May 28, 2010, wants to expand on the political motives that moved him to commit his acts.
Judge Denise Lind has ruled during the pre-trial process for Manning that he will not be allowed to testify as to his own motives for his actions, deeming that irrelevant. That has left Manning, who is charged with aiding the enemy, theft of public records, computer fraud, and 19 other charges, effectively muzzled. According to Nathan Fuller, a spokesman for the support network that is paying for Manning's defense, his offer to plead guilty creates an opportunity for him to speak to Judge Lind in open court tomorrow.
"It's taking responsibility for the release of WikiLeaks but criticizing the way the government has targeted it… [this] is an alternative way to get his [ideals] into the public record," says Fuller. He says that while the military prosecution has insisted that Manning is, for instance, guilty of aiding Al Qaeda because he would have known that the documents could be accessed by the group, "this is an opportunity for Manning to make the statement that WikiLeaks is a conduit to help the American people."
During Manning's detention, the government has been very effective in keeping him from getting his views out into public. Even the details of his written statement yesterday only became publicly known because of the objections of prosecutors to its admittance at all, arguing that Manning's explanations for his actions are irrelevant to the case. The prosecutions read small portions of his statement to argue the point. Generally, Judge Lind has refused to release court filings in the case or even transcripts (earlier today, the Pentagon released 84 documents from the Manning case after months of intense pressure from transparency advocates and press groups).
Manning's motives have long been fairly clear, and it's hard to see how his expanding on them will do his case any good. The US military, after all, isn't in the habit of letting soldiers decide what's classified and what isn't. And the indiscriminate release of tens of thousands of documents running over the course of years is hard to paint as an isolated case of "whistleblowing." (Unlike, say, leaking a video that clearly showed US forces killing a group of unarmed men.)
But while that's one side of the coin, the other has been his frankly appalling treatment since his arrest.
A speedy trial? Military rules call for arraignments for accused soldiers facing a court martial within four months, yet Manning was arraigned only after 20 months in detention. (Earlier this week, the defense issued a motion to dismiss his case because of that missed deadline; Judge Lind ruled that the 16-month delay was acceptable).
At one point he was kept in solitary for 23 hours a day for months, an isolation from human contact so intense it drives many men mad. He was kept on long-term suicide watch against regulations, which denied him bed-clothes, the right to sleep in the dark, and forced him undergo frequent naked inspections. In 2011, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley had to step down after calling Manning's treatment “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
In early January, Judge Lind basically agreed, ordering that any sentence carried out against Manning be reduced by 112 days to reflect 9 months of illegal pretrial punishment he suffered while detained at Marine Corps facility in Quantico, Virginia. Lind said Manning's conditions of confinement were "excessive in relation to legitimate government interests."
Is it a legitimate government interest to prevent Manning from describing his own motivations and state of mind? Well, it is probably irrelevant to his guilt or innocence in a strictly legal sense. But the prosecution has gone to great lengths to keep Manning shut up. What is there to be afraid of?
(This article was edited after first posting to correct the name of Nathan Fuller).