Next week, as the country’s Christmastime frenzy is in full swing, a 24-year-old American Army private will be on trial for his very life.
His supporters say “we are all Bradley Manning,” and perhaps they are right. His first hearing since he was arrested in May 2010 and put in military custody takes place on the heels of a Senate vote last week that would give the military the ability to detain anyone on domestic soil suspected of loosely defined connections to terror — even American citizens — without hearing or trial. Though the president has promised to veto the measure, if it stands, Americans could find themselves sitting in a cell one day on the military’s timetable, their constitutional rights in question.
The difference here is that Manning is a soldier in the U.S. Army and his case is being tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He faces 22 charges for accessing a database of more than 250,000 classified U.S. government documents from a military computer and passing them on to WikiLeaks, which has been publishing the documents for over a year through mainstream media outlets. The most damning and embarrassing documents include the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghanistan war logs, the Iraq war logs, and the Guantanamo files.
Some critical unrelated leaks from the released U.S. State Department trove have been credited with sparking outrage in international tinderboxes such as Egypt and Tunisia, which underwent historic revolutions this year, leading to upheavals in places like Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
For this and more, Manning’s supporters, who have raised nearly $400,000 for his defense through the Bradley Manning Support Network, have rallied to his cause in growing numbers. Manning is one of many government employees who have risked their careers — and even their lives — to expose the truth about the wars overseas and at home since 9/11. They see him as a victim and a hero, not a traitor who deserves the most severe punishment the military can dole out.
And even knowing that the deck is likely stacked against him, they welcome this hearing as a way to redirect attention on Manning after months of a seeming media blackout — not to mention generate sympathy for his cause.
“There is a constituency here that doesn’t think that it was inappropriate at all what Bradley Manning has done,” said British writer Andy Worthington in a recent exchange with Antiwar.com. The Dec. 16 hearing at Fort Meade in Maryland, some 20 miles from the nation’s capital, will be the first time Americans will hear Manning’s side of the story, Worthington noted.
Manning is not among the 50 potential witnesses whom defense lawyer David Coombs hopes to bring to the stand during the hearing (a redacted list of witnesses can be found on Coombs’ blog), but his defense is obviously looking to these individuals to shape a more accurate picture of who Manning is and what it deems is a deeply flawed case against him.
The names are redacted, but there is enough information to indicate that the list includes Army investigators involved in the case, commanding officers, former supervisors and fellow soldiers, psychologists and psychiatrists, forensic experts familiar with the computer software and technology used in the leaks, defense officials familiar with reports regarding the impact of the leaks, the ex-hacker who turned Manning in after the soldier confessed the leaks to him online, and even President Barack Obama, who the defense claims tainted the case when he said on tape in April that “he [Manning] broke the law,” thus declaring the soldier’s guilt before he had his day in court.
Coombs is not speaking to the press, but he has been in contact with the Bradley Manning Support Network, which has been putting out regular releases about the upcoming hearing.
Jeff Paterson, spokesman for the network, told Antiwar Radio last week that Coombs is building a multi-pronged case in which he will attempt to prove that the government’s own investigations — including a reportedly damning Defense Intelligence Agency report — indicate the information leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks was dated, represented low-level opinions, or was already commonly known, which contradicts other internal reports and public statements by administration officials about the danger the leaks pose to national security.
Coombs will also charge, according to Paterson and reports last week in the press, that Manning was subject to illegal pre-trial punishment during his first months in solitary confinement. Locked in a 9 ft. by 8 ft. cell at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, he was forced to carry out his exercise outside in leg and hand restraints and strip naked for guards, among other devices that outside observers have labeled “torture.” The U.N. even asked to monitor his detention and care but was refused. Presumably under growing outside pressure, the government later transferred Manning to a more moderate security situation at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.
Paterson pointed out that the military has not been forthcoming about the information Coombs is seeking for its defense. “That is why it’s taken almost a year and a half. The military has basically dragged their feet at every turn, thus making this a snail’s pace. The military still refuses to turn over the key evidence.”
The network says it has planned a massive rally outside the Dec. 16 hearing as well as a gathering to recognize Manning’s 24th birthday. “I think we have a fighting chance — I think the odds are against us. But we have a good legal team, and we have been working to educate the public for a year as to who Bradley Manning is.”
It’s clear at this point that Manning is seen by many as a critical bulwark against not only the often secret activities that have led to the moral and ethical decay of our policies abroad, but also the further loss of civil liberties and freedoms at home. If he goes down, it is the next step toward what many have called the creeping tyranny of government. It is of no small consequence that Manning’s year-long detention and mistreatment in prison coincides with widespread infiltration and police crackdowns on activists and Muslim communities from coast-to-coast, the alarming militarization of police, and an evolution in technology designed to monitor and track large numbers of Americans.
To his supporters, Manning is a truth-teller at a time when lies and spin have led to two wars and the greatest expansion of police and military powers in modern American history. The fact that the president has all but declared him guilty and right-wing critics have called for his head has many convinced that his treatment is more about the embarrassment and lack of control his leaks have exposed than anything else.
“They are trying to make a public example of Bradley to other potential whistle-blowers within the military,” said Paterson, “that even if technically you are following the law, even if a court-martial will eventually acquit you — and that’s a big if — we are going to punish you when we get our hands on you, regardless of the law.”
Paterson added, “There has been no significant impact to national security based on these leaks. Now, plenty of people have been embarrassed, U.S. corporations, the U.S. government, and U.S. government embassies around the world have been embarrassed by our foreign policies because the U.S. people and people in these countries have a better idea of what’s going on there, but that’s different from actually impacting us security of U.S. persons.
“And no one has been essentially hurt by this information, but the fact is, Bradley Manning is facing the rest of his life in jail.”
The government “has no evidence whatsoever that Bradley was doing anything other than exposing information that he thought indicated wrongdoing by people in authority,” said Paterson, and that is borne out in the transcripts of the online chats Manning had with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo. In those transcripts — a good version can be found here — Manning tells the guy who would later drop a huge dime on him that he leaked the information to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange because “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
One of those leaks was the now infamous “Collateral Murder” video, which shows at least 12 Iraqi civilians being killed by a U.S. gunship on July 12, 2007. The Pentagon had been sitting on the details of the shooting and the classified video for years before it was released virally on the Internet by WikiLeaks in April 2010.
The release of the video drew swift condemnation by the government and its surrogates against the heretofore unknown leaker and WikiLeaks, which had become a national security risk, according to the military and the White House.
But Americans saw firsthand, in raw footage, what many had suspected all along — that the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were looking more every day like Vietnam, riddled with moral ambiguities in which we were seeming less like winners or even liberators and more like the enemy we fear. This, while thousands of American lives were lost, tens of thousands ruined, a diaspora cast to the wind, and our coffers drained for the privilege of being called the world’s bully and occupier.
And that wasn’t all. With all of the speculation about what makes Manning and Assange tick — was Manning bullied because he’s gay? Is Julian Assange a narcissistic sex-freak? — lost in the discussion are the documents themselves and how they gave us reams of information about what our government has been doing in our name all along. And it isn’t pretty.
In the Iraq War logs, based on over 400,000 U.S. Army field reports and released in October 2010, we found that our own forces refused to investigate widespread complaints of torture, abuse, rape, and even murder by our allies in the Iraqi army against ordinary Iraqis. We found, too, that contrary to what we were told, the military was taking “body counts” and thousands of more civilians had been killed by U.S. forces than previously disclosed — many of them at security checkpoints manned by coalition forces.
Andy Worthington has painstakingly sifted through the Guantanamo files and has worked with the mainstream press to publish them. He is still laboriously making his way through the leaked material. He told Antiwar.com that “they expose things that I’m sure that the U.S. government does not want the rest of the world to know — that Guantanamo was cruel and stupid and a big waste of money and time, and there is very little in terms of information that shows it was worthwhile at all.”
When the files were first released to the press in April 2011, they revealed a situation in which most of the prisoners were not terrorists but low-level Taliban foot soldiers and innocent people who had been swept up in wide nets and corrupt double-dealings by informants and other nefarious actors. Much of the evidence against them had come from rivals back home or just a handful of informants working with military intelligence at Gitmo.
In the Afghan War logs, based on some 92,000 records of action and released in July 2010, we learned of at least 150 unreported incidents in which civilians were killed by U.S. and British forces. We learned things about the drone attacks and the “capture and kill” teams we assumed but never knew in such detail.
“These war logs — written in the heat of engagement — show a conflict that is brutally messy, confused, and immediate. It is in some contrast with the tidied-up and sanitized ‘public’ war, as glimpsed through official communiques as well as the necessarily limited snapshots of embedded reporting,” wrote the UK Guardian on July 25, 2010.
“However you cut it, this is not an Afghanistan that either the U.S. or Britain is about to hand over gift-wrapped with pink ribbons to a sovereign national government in Kabul. Quite the contrary. After nine years of warfare, the chaos threatens to overwhelm. A war fought ostensibly for the hearts and minds of Afghans cannot be won like this.”
Nothing that has happened in the war since has proven this statement wrong. If anything, the efforts to “win” Afghanistan have gotten as desperate as they are futile. We are leaving, and no one seems to have much confidence that we are leaving a better Afghanistan behind.
If anything, Manning has done us a favor: he has given us information our own government did not deem us responsible enough to process ourselves. “And this isn’t just America exposed, it’s every other country,” noted Worthington. “This is about seeing what the people in power don’t want us to see.”
As for Manning, Worthington is less confident than Paterson. “I would say [the military’s] intention is that he never sees freedom again. Which is not unusual — that’s the fate facing so many people. America has a horribly, horribly punitive justice system.”
Which is why when they say “we are all Bradley Manning,” they mean it. In many ways this is not just about one man, but a machine that has gotten way ahead of our ability to understand or accept it. Though this hearing takes place smack in the middle of the holiday season (and one shouldn’t doubt the deliberate nature of that decision), we need to pay attention — to Manning and to other government shenanigans, like the Senate putting the military in charge of detaining Americans without trial, even here in the U.S.
It can get worse, after all.
Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.