Bradley Manning’s trial began today. In a small, densely packed and windowless courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland, the Army private and former intelligence analyst sat quietly as the prosecution presented its opening statement. He stands accused of providing a massive trove of government information to the disclosure portal WikiLeaks — around 700,000 documents, including diplomatic cables and SIGACTS ("significant activity" reports) providing an unprecedented, detailed look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the prosecution, Captain Joe Morrow opened not with his own words but with a quote from Bradley Manning, taken from an online chat with hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning, as "bradass87," wrote, "If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?" Morrow used Manning's words as a rhetorical question; his answer was that in answer to his own question, Manning had "systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of documents, then dumped them on the internet, into the hands of the enemy."
Manning's plea leaves his fate largely in the hands of the judge
Morrow emphasized "into the hands of the enemy" because Manning, who has spent more than 1,000 days in military confinement since his arrest in 2010, had already offered a guilty plea "by substitutions and exceptions," a procedure allowing him to take responsibility for some offenses while not pleading to others. Specifically, Manning acknowledged lesser offenses primarily related to his unauthorized access of classified information and passing that information to unauthorized persons. Those 10 charges alone carry a maximum 20-year sentence.
Manning's plea, along with his earlier decision to forgo a jury trial, leaves his fate largely in the hands of the judge, Army Colonel Denise Lind. It also left the prosecution free to pursue greater charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Espionage Act. The prosecution has not charged Manning with a capital offense — an option in cases involving the Espionage Act, a nearly century-old law established during wartime and granting the government broad prosecutorial powers — but chose to go forward with the trial, looking to prove him guilty of an additional 12 charges. Many of those charges involve "aiding the enemy," thus Morrow's emphasis that the leaked documents found their way to al Qaeda. Specifically, as Morrow later claimed the evidence would show, the State Department cables and Afghanistan war logs ended up on Osama bin Laden's computer, and were recovered during the May 2011 raid on his compound.
Morrow painted Manning as an indiscriminate leaker
Morrow painted Manning as an indiscriminate leaker, one who dumped large databases using the "technical boost" of WGET, a freeware utility for quickly downloading from web servers. Manning, he said, had extensive contact with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; he even collected information requested among WikiLeaks’ "most-wanted" material.
"The evidence," Morrow concluded, "will show Pfc. Manning knew the danger of revealing information to an organization like WikiLeaks, and he ignored that danger."
With Manning having already offered a partial guilty plea and admitting to the leaks, defense attorney David Coombs tried to show his client’s actions in the most positive light. Where Morrow described Manning as having wanton disregard for information security and taking his cues from Julian Assange, Coombs portrayed Manning as a meticulous leaker driven by his own conscience, an idealistic young man who revealed documents he believed the public needed to see. While good intentions are not legally mitigating, Coombs may have been looking ahead to sentencing, hoping that a defendant driven by youthful idealism might inspire leniency in Colonel Lind.
Coombs began by describing Manning’s dog tags, custom-made, which read, "Humanist." Manning, he said, "is not the typical soldier." His humanist beliefs meant valuing every life, Coombs said, and hoping not just that every soldier deployed with him went home safe, but that every Iraqi could go home safe as well. And on Christmas Eve of 2009, Bradley Manning experienced a tragedy that made it harder for him to play the role of a typical soldier.
Manning couldn't shake the image of an Iraqi family caught in a roadside explosion
That day, a roadside bomb struck an Army convoy. No soldiers were killed, but a car filled with Iraqi civilians was caught in the explosion. One civilian died on the way to the hospital. While his comrades celebrated the narrow escape of their fellow soldiers, Manning couldn't shake the image of that Iraqi family. "No longer could he read SIGACTS or reports as just numbers," Coombs said, "without thinking about that family who had just pulled over the car to let the convoy go by."
And he began thinking that the public needed to see what he'd seen. It began with the SIGACTS, according to Coombs: "He knew that SIGACTS were generally considered historical documents – documents that discussed what happened in the past. He knew that SIGACTS did not cover future operations; he knew that they did not reveal sources. He knew that they documented encounters with the enemy, so the enemy knew about them. He knew that the SIGACTS were essentially a diary, a day to day accounting of what was happening." As he read them, he grew to believe that if made public, they could dispel the fog of war, and show "the true nature of 21st-century asymmetric warfare."
"He believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled. And things would change."
He had similar feelings toward a video showing the battlefield killing of two Reuters journalists, later released as "Collateral Murder." His colleagues had found the video stored on the secure network. Manning saw it, knowing it was the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request, and that after two years, the Army had responded that it couldn’t find the video. "He was troubled," Coombs said, "and he believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled. And things would change."
That belief — that with less secrecy and more information, the world would be a better place — motivated all of Manning’s subsequent leaks, according to Coombs. He began looking at diplomatic cables and realized they contained information that was not classified, but was potentially embarrassing. He saw, as Coombs put it, that US diplomats "unfortunately don't always do the right thing by other countries." He found another battlefield video requested via FOIA; he found reports describing Guantanamo detainees. He leaked them. "He was thinking about what the American public would think of this information," Coombs said. "Not about the enemy. Which he could not know."
When he committed the largest intelligence leak in US history, Bradley Manning was 22 years old. He was idealistic, Coombs said; he believed that if people saw the things he'd seen, things would change. He was, his defense attorney concluded, "young, naïve, but good-intentioned."