Yesterday, the court-martial of Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst accused of providing classified information to the WikiLeaks, took an important turn. As his defense had planned since at least last November, Manning offered a guilty plea for 10 charges; his plea, "by substitutions and exceptions," allowed him to accept responsibility for lesser offenses primarily related to unauthorized access to classified information and passing that information to unauthorized persons. (He also admitted that such leaks were "service discrediting" and "prejudicial to the good order and discipline" of the Army.) The court accepted his plea, with the offenses carrying a maximum of 20 years in prison.

The prosecution plans to go forward the pleaded charges, as well as with 12 other charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Espionage Act; offenses under the latter can carry a death sentence, though prosecutors have said they’ll pursue life imprisonment instead. Final sentencing authority lies with Colonel Denise Lind, the military judge who has presided over Manning’s case. Rather than allow the facts of his case to be decided by a panel of court members, Manning chose to be tried by the judge alone, meaning Colonel Lind will decide Manning’s guilt or innocence as well as his ultimate sentence.

That may explain his decision to plead to some charges. Having exhausted claims that he was mistreated while in Army custody, as well as that his right to a speedy trial was abridged, Manning faces the potential of life in prison if convicted under the Espionage Act. And while his guilty plea was a rare example of a "naked plea" — offered with no promise of a reduced sentence or other bargain with the prosecution — many observers have suggested it’s a message: Manning wants to take responsibility for his actions. The plea, in other words, means accepting some lesser guilt, implicitly appealing to the judge in hopes of avoiding a life in jail.

Many observers have suggested that the guilty pleas sends a message: Manning wants to take responsibility for his actions

So Bradley Manning offered the most sustained and substantive account of how he came to supply WikiLeaks with a massive trove of information. Flanked by two much larger members of his defense team — Manning stands just over five feet tall and looks incongruously diminutive in the courtroom — he spoke for over an hour, reading from a prepared statement, describing how he came to join the Army, his role as an intelligence analyst, and the technical details behind the leak.

In 2007, he explained, Manning joined the US Army with test scores high enough to choose his assignment. Interests in geo-political affairs and computers led him choose 35F: Intelligence Analyst. He struggled in basic training, suffering injuries that would have allowed him to leave the army. He wanted to stay, and after basic graduated to advanced individual training, where he preferred the mental challenges and analyst work to the grueling physical work of basic training.

He began using SIPRNet, the military network used to transmit and store classified data. He also began working with a system called the Combined Information Data Network Exchange (CIDNE, pronounced Sydney). It collected reports from troops in the field, divided into two databases, CIDNEA for Afghanistan and CIDNEI for Iraq. He worked primarily with Significant Activity reports, daily summaries on attacks against US and allied forces. He didn’t consider the material very sensitive, as it often became public and only remained relevant for 48-72 hours as conditions changed. He regarded it primarily as historical data. While stationed in Iraq, he backed up material from the CIDNE databases, he said, because intermittent connectivity and hardware failures often meant losing information. The backups of CIDNEA and CIDNEI would eventually become known via WikiLeaks as the Afghanistan War Logs and the Iraq War Logs.

Manning first noticed WikiLeaks after the organization released copies of a half-million SMS messages sent on September 11, 2001. He investigated and found WikiLeaks also had information useful to his job, including details on weapons trafficking in Iraq and Afghanistan. He joined the WikiLeaks IRC channel and participated in both technical and political discussions.

Eventually he decided to release the CIDNEA and CIDNEI backups. "I believed," he said in his statement, "and still believe, that these are some of the most important documents of our time." From the optical disc copies he’d burned (with no mention of his supposedly labeling the discs "Lady Gaga"), he transferred the logs to a memory card in his camera. On his mid-tour leave he took the material back to the United States. He talked to his boyfriend about releasing it, but the conversation sputtered.

"I believed, and still believe, that these are some of the most important documents of our time."

Still, he said, "I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general as it applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. It might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counter terrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day.” He approached his "local paper" first: The Washington Post. After a five-minute conversation, he said, he felt the reporter didn’t take him seriously. (Later, during questioning by Colonel Lind, he admitted he was nervous about physically visiting the Post offices.) A call to The New York Times public editor routed him to an answering machine, where he left his contact information but never heard back. (The Times doesn’t recall any such message.) He considered Politico, but a recent snowstorm deterred him.

With his leave winding down, he said, that left WikiLeaks. He needed broadband access he couldn’t get in Iraq to upload the information. So on February 3, 2010, he visited a Barnes and Noble in Rockville, Maryland, opened a Tor link for WikiLeaks, and submitted the war logs.

Manning’s statement describes in similar detail the rest of his leaks, which, as he told it, all arose out of pursuing his curiosity. He heard about Iceland’s financial crisis, then soon found a cable on the topic. He sent it to WikiLeaks, where it appeared within hours — his first published leak. On a shared network drive his colleagues had found a cockpit video, another example of what he dubbed "war porn." It showed civilians being killed, along with cockpit chatter that Manning found exceedingly cruel. "To me," he said, "this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass."

"To me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass."

He discovered the footage was the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request from Reuters, whose journalists were shown being killed in the video. He also found the incident described in The Good Soldiers, a book by Washington Post writer David Finkel. The description, he believed, misled readers. He released the video to WikiLeaks, where it became known as "Collateral Murder."

As Manning released more material, he began chatting with a WikiLeaks proxy known as Ox (or possibly 0x), who he assumed to be Julian Assange, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, or other high-ranking member(s) of the organization. He named the contact "Nathaniel Frank," after the author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. Over time, he believed he’d struck up a friendship; isolated among his colleagues, he felt he lacked any close connections. Anonymity made him more comfortable. But, he said, "these dynamics were artificial, more appreciated by me than by Frank." In his testimony, however, he gave no indication that anyone from WikiLeaks had encouraged him to release information. That could prove important for Assange, who’s likely under a grand jury investigation related to the leaks.

At a few points in his statement, Manning expressed the motivations behind his leaking, or described depression and helplessness at the state of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point he read, slowly and quietly, "To me, it’s all a big mess. And I’m left wondering what these things mean, and it burdens me emotionally." The court had precluded any discussion of motive during the hearings as immaterial, and the prosecution several times asked Colonel Lind to ask Manning to repeat that his mental state was sound at the time of the leaks, and that he had understood the wrongness of his actions.

Her questioning, part of a "providence inquiry" following Manning’s statement, focused on solidifying his guilty plea, leaving no room for possible appeal. Questions such as "Who gets to classify information in the United States?" and "If the person is not the original classifying authority (OCA), who has the authority to declassify information?" had obvious answers, but for each of the specified charges Colonel Lind got Manning’s answers on record. Repeatedly, Manning agreed that he had willfully transmitted the information, and that his actions were "service discrediting" and "prejudicial to the good order and discipline" of the Army.

Manning will be a near-silent presence while others debate his fate

The session closed with Colonel Lind accepting Bradley Manning’s guilty plea. She asked the prosecution to calculate the maximum term he would serve under the agreement. The answer came back: 20 years. With this plea, she warned him, there would be no chance of his being found "not guilty," and the government could build on his admitted offenses in making its case for greater offenses. He agreed that he understood.

In today’s session, as in almost the entire trial, Bradley Manning will likely not say much. He’ll be a near-silent presence while others debate his fate, this time discussing the use of classified information in the case. They will have a lot to say, and Bradley Manning will be quiet, having already said his piece.