Bradley Manning Awaits Verdict After Trial Ends With Prosecution “Smears” and Harsh Government Secrecy

Closing arguments have wrapped in the nearly two-month military trial of Army Private Bradley Manning. The presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, is now deliberating on 21 charges, including “aiding the enemy.” Manning faces up to life in prison for leaking more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks and other news sources, the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history. Over the weekend, protesters in dozens of cities around the world held rallies to mark an international day of action calling for Manning’s release. We get an update from outside the courtroom with independent journalist Alexa O’Brien, who has been in the courtroom daily since the trial began. “We had armed guards roaming the aisles, actually standing behind reporters, peering into our computers, coming every five minutes behind us,” O’Brien says of how journalists were treated last week. “It was quite shocking behavior.” We’re also joined by Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who observed the trial’s closing arguments. “The government’s theory is what really is awful here: You can ‘aid the enemy’ by putting information up on the Internet, intelligence that doesn’t have to be classified,” Ratner says. “Because the enemy reads the Internet, you can be accused of aiding the enemy.”


Amy Goodman: After nearly two months of trial, a military judge will now consider the fate of Army Private Bradley Manning, accused of being behind the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history. Prosecutors in Manning’s court-martial made their closing arguments Thursday, and the defense followed on Friday. The 25-year-old whistleblower is the first-ever defendant to face an “aiding the enemy” charge for leaking more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks and other news sources, which carries a potential life sentence in prison and could set a major precedent for future cases involving journalists. The judge in the case, Colonel Denise Lind, is now deliberating on the 21 charges Manning faces and has not said when she will rule.

Many of Manning’s supporters are calling for the convening authority on the case, Jeffrey Buchanan, to dismiss a potential guilty finding by Lind and reduce the whistleblower’s sentence. On Friday, protesters blocked the gates of Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., where Buchanan’s office is located.

John Pepper: I don’t think he’s claimed to be naive; I think he has claimed to have done the right thing. I don’t think the question is whether he was naive; I think the question is whether or not he did the right thing.

Rachel Atwood: The very idea that he is being punished for coming out against war crimes and such cruelty by his fellow servicemen is—it’s really disturbing.

Amy Goodman: Over the weekend, protesters in dozens of cities around the world also held rallies to mark an international day of action calling for Manning’s release. Last Thursday, the Bradley Manning Support Network published a full-page ad in The New York Times that read in part, “We are American military veterans, artists, journalists, educators, homemakers, lawyers, and citizens. We live in red states and in blue states, in communities urban and rural. We ask you to consider the facts, and join us in declaring: Enough is enough. Free Bradley Manning now,” the ad read, in part.

Well, for more, we’re joined from Fort Meade via Democracy Now! video stream by Alexa O’Brien, independent journalist who has been in the courtroom every day since the trial began. She is in her car in the parking lot outside the courtroom. O’Brien was the first to make transcripts of the proceedings publicly available when they weren’t being made available by the court. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in Britain.

Here in New York, we’re joined by Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Both were brought up repeatedly during the prosecution’s closing arguments. And Michael Ratner was also there for the opening and closing arguments in the Bradley Manning trial.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Michael, why don’t you start off by describing the scene in the courtroom on Thursday and Friday, and what, first, the prosecution laid out, and then the defense.

Michael Ratner: You know, it’s a small courtroom. They make you wait a long time to get in. There’s 25 spectators only allowed in. There’s an overflow. You’re very close to Bradley Manning, I mean almost as close as I am to you, Amy, here. So it’s very small, compact. But it’s very, very intense.

And the prosecutor spent all of Thursday on his summation, and he wasn’t supposed to. And I’ll tell you why in a second, but it was an awful thing to sit there and listen to him basically smear and go through a diatribe about the character of Bradley Manning as well as the reasons he claims Bradley Manning did what he did, as well as go after my client, WikiLeaks, saying they’re not a journalist at all. It was a complete fantasy. But to sit there and painfully listen to these smears the entire day—you know, everything from “he’s a traitor” to “he did this for fame, he’s self-interested”—none of it is based on the evidence, none of it’s true. And that’s what David Coombs, Bradley Manning’s defense lawyer, pointed out on Friday.

But when I say it took the whole day—because here’s what happened. We were supposed to get both summations on Thursday, but I think the prosecutor purposely repeated things constantly—six-hour summation, seven-hour summation—so that the press that night—and it was the most press we had for a long time, 60-some press—would only put in his characterizations of Bradley Manning. It wasn’t until the next day when David Coombs really, utterly destroyed the idea that Bradley Manning was doing this for anything but the highest motives, to get information out to the American public about U.S. war crimes and U.S. criminality.

Amy Goodman: Alexa O’Brien, you have been there every day of this trial, including Sunday, as Denise Lind, the judge, was deliberating. On the closing days and the closing arguments, can you talk about how the reporters were being treated by the military?

Alexa O’Brien: We have a new public affairs officer here at Fort Meade, and we had armed guards basically roaming the aisles of the media operation center. But even more than roaming the aisles, they were actually standing behind reporters, peering into our computers, coming every five minutes behind us. It was—it was quite a shocking behavior.

Amy Goodman: Can you explain—I was reading Charlie Savage’s piece in The New York Times, who described what was happening in the media center, talking about how the—let me see if I can find the words. “While Major Fein made his arguments, reporters watched the trial on a closed-circuit feed at the media center. Two military police officers in camouflage fatigues and armed [with holstered] handguns paced behind each row there, looking over the journalists’ shoulders, [which had not] happened during the trial. No explanation was given.”

Alexa O’Brien: You know, it’s interesting because I was here yesterday while the judge deliberated, and the commander came up to me—and I’m not allowed to name her, actually, or I could lose my press credentials. I can’t name any staff by their surname, etc. She told me that she was actually the media person responsible for all the images of Saddam Hussein’s capture and that those photographs were taken with her digital camera. So, she clearly understands how to manage the message. And that’s really central to this trial, is how Fort Meade has managed the message by the lack of public access to court documents, the subject matter expert, by the Military District of Washington, which is responsible for convening a fair and impartial trial for the accused, Bradley Manning. The first subject matter expert we had was a member of the prosecution. Nobody in the press pool knew that. It’s really what Mr. Ratner just spoke about, the fact that the prosecution wants to make sure that it makes the headlines, so it takes up a whole day of court and essentially squeezes any kind of press attention away from the defense. The fact of the matter is, is that if this trial were to be televised, if people could actually see Bradley Manning, see how earnest he is and how sincere a character and sympathetic a character he is, public opinion about this trial would change dramatically.

Amy Goodman: I mean, the fact that you’re at the headquarters of the National Security Agency, right—it’s right there at Fort Meade—and a military base, and talk about just the trouble you have with the Internet. And what is your ability to work? Describe what happens in the courtroom, in the media center. And can you go online at all there?

Alexa O’Brien: We can no longer go online. The military—sorry, the Public Affairs Office here says it’s because of commercial Internet issues with Comcast. However, the fact of the matter is, is that we’re—we have to go outside in order to file. Let’s say something dramatic happens in the courtroom. We can’t tweet or publish anything, even send an email. We have to leave the media operations center, stand on the steps, open up our phone, which we’ve gotten out of our car, and then tweet something or, you know, email something or file something.

You know, we have to also look back. There was a period of almost eight months when it was just simply a small cadre of independent journalists, where we didn’t have a media operations center, where transcripts were pen and paper, and where we were trying to get out as much information as possible about a trial and motions related to aiding the enemy, whether or not the government was trying to craft an Official Secrets Act in this trial. It has been a completely surreal experience.

Amy Goodman: One of the court artists, you know, self-appointed, who drives a WikiLeaks truck, he was banned in these last few days from coming onto Fort Meade?

Alexa O’Brien: Yeah, that had to do with his conduct. He did actually send an apology letter. I’ll let him speak more specifically, because I’m not completely briefed on exactly what specific conduct it was. It was related to his tweets about the prosecution—that, I know. He has been banned. The judge said she would reconsider it, because he sent this apology letter and explained himself. However, because he’s possibly banned from the base itself and not just the court-martial proceedings, it has yet to be determined what the garrison commander will do, whether or not he will actually sign the document banning Clark from the base itself, which would make the court-martial ruling sort of moot.

Amy Goodman: The artist—artist is named Clark Stoeckley.

I wanted to ask you, Alexa, during closing arguments Thursday, military prosecutor Major Ashden Fein accused Bradley Manning of betraying the nation, concluding: “He was not a whistleblower. He was a traitor,” Fein said. He went on to say, “His mission, as an all intelligence analyst, was a special trust. But within weeks of arriving at Iraq, he abused and destroyed [this] trust with the wholesale, indiscriminate compromise of hundreds of thousands of classified documents. He delivered these documents ready made for use by an enemy via a platform he had long researched and come to know, WikiLeaks. He delivered these documents for notoriety.”

Fein goes on to say that leaking to, quote, “established journalistic enterprise like The New York Times or Washington Post would be a crime,” but that this did not happen. Major Fein argued that, quote, “[Pfc] Manning deliberately and intentionally disclosed his compromised information through WikiLeaks to the world knowing that WikiLeaks would release the information in the form they received it and that is … exactly what happened in this case,” so Fein said.

Alexa O’Brien, talk about the actual charges that Bradley Manning faces.

Alexa O’Brien: Manning is charged with 22 charges. In the trial portion, or the merits trial, which was related to these offenses, he has pled to lesser included, and so the government accepted one of his pleas for the transmission of Reykjavik 13, a diplomatic cable related to the, basically, banking—banking corruption and ineptitude in Iceland. And so, he was only really tried on 21 charges in that portion. But the whole trial is 22 charges. If he’s convicted on the government’s case, he faces life plus 154 years. He has pled to 10 lesser included offenses of the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. And so, he already is exposed to 20 years. The defense strategy has really been to offset any greater offense, to try to keep it to his plea to 10 lesser included, so that when they get into the sentencing phase of the trial, which is imminent, they can really actually try to mitigate his sentence down as much as possible.

Amy Goodman: Michael Ratner, you were there for the opening arguments. You went back a number of times and then were there for the closing arguments. Making the point that the prosecution used up a lot of time on Thursday, and so the big reports were on Friday, when the defense had not made its arguments, and then—isn’t really the prosecution’s problem, it’s the reporters who—half of them didn’t come back, and so they don’t have the defense’s view of things. Now, the prosecution called him an anarchist who was seeking to make a splash; he betrayed the U.S. trust. Could Bradley Manning face the death penalty, even if the prosecutors don’t ask for it from Denise Lind?

Michael Ratner: Right, aiding the enemy does carry the death penalty. The judge, even though the prosecutors said they’re only going to go for life, or they won’t give him more than life, the judge can do what she wants, and she could give him the death penalty for that. That’s correct.

I mean, you know, the courtroom was really—it’s hard to describe how horrible that day of Thursday was, in some of the statements that you’re saying the judge said—that the prosecutor said, because there was no evidence of any of that. The idea that he was a traitor came from a witness who never wrote anything down, who clearly made it up after the fact, about something about his attitude toward the flag. The idea that he was doing it for fame was ridiculous, because, as David Coombs, the lawyer for Bradley Manning, pointed out, he tried to be anonymous the whole time. He tried to, quote, “cover his tracks.” So how is he becoming famous from doing this?

And then, the defense went through three different times in which it was clear that Bradley Manning had the highest motives: before he even went to Iraq, that he wanted to save people, that he wanted to save fellow soldiers; when he’s there and talking to Lamo, Lamo is quoted as saying Bradley Manning is idealistic; and Manning is also quoted in that saying, “If you had seen the horrible things, horrible things that I’ve seen, would you just leave them on the Internet?”

Then, of course, after, he gives this incredible day of testimony as to why he leaked each of these sets of documents, from the Iraq War Logs to the “Collateral Murder” video. One of the most moving moments in the courtroom was on Friday, when they played excerpts of the “Collateral Murder” video. That’s the video in which you see the Apache helicopter people killing the Reuters journalists and then firing on the van that’s going to pick up the wounded people, and then firing again and again, and using language of basically saying, “We just got another target.” And—

Amy Goodman: This was the attack in New Baghdad, Iraq, by a U.S. Apache helicopter on July 12th, 2007.

Michael Ratner: Right, and you’ve shown it here a number of times. It’s one of the most moving things. And what David Coombs asked the judge to do is said, “Put yourself in the position of a 21-year-old soldier watching that video, and try and not remove yourself from what’s going on there.” Nine people are killed in that video, nine people, that the implication was clear, unjustifiably killed, with incredible—

Amy Goodman: I think the total was 12, right? Including two Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen, the videographer, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh.

Michael Ratner: It may be. They mentioned nine, but I think that’s certainly a number—I think he even said nine or more in that video. And he asked the judge to say, “Look at Bradley Manning and what he did with that video and why he did it. Don’t talk about it the way the government talks about it”—this is somehow releasing, you know, information about the angle of the helicopter or something, which was absurd, because most of the information, if not almost all of it, had come out about that helicopter attack, and it wasn’t even classified. But that was an incredibly stirring moment in which the judge—in which the prosecutor is trying to say these are Bradley Manning’s motives in doing it.

Now, one interesting aspect of this, of course, is the aiding the enemy charge. I just want to go to one point of it, because one of the reasons—and you mentioned it, in saying—they’re painting WikiLeaks in a certain way, because they want to say that Bradley Manning, by giving this to WikiLeaks, knew it would go up on the Internet, and WikiLeaks is a bad organization, it’s not a journalistic organization, and therefore—it’s nefarious, and therefore, when Bradley Manning did it, he did it with a motive, by giving it to WikiLeaks, that might have been different had he given it to The New York Times. Well, that was just smashed to bits by the prosecution—by the defendant, defense, first by a witness they had, Benkler from Harvard, who said WikiLeaks is a legitimate journalistic organization, there’s a role for organizations like WikiLeaks in doing this, and that—and that WikiLeaks doesn’t put out everything it gets. It actually has—is discreet about what it puts out. It’s had less than 1 percent of its documents put up have been somewhat, possibly, less inaccurate—less than 1 percent. That’s probably a better record than The New York Times. But the prosecution is trying to show Bradley Manning in a certain way and WikiLeaks in a certain way, as these two organizations that essentially want to undermine the United States, rather than the whistleblowing journalists they are.

Amy Goodman: We have to break and come back, and then I want to ask you, Alexa, about the witnesses that were called, and then talk about the implications of this for journalists, overall, in releasing information, and particularly look at this aiding the enemy charge. Alexa O’Brien is with us in her car outside the courtroom, because no other accommodation could be made to talk to her right now as the judge deliberates the verdict of Bradley Manning. Alexa O’Brien has been in that courtroom every day since the trial began, the first to make transcripts publicly available. And we’re joined by Michael Ratner, who is the attorney for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. We’ll be back in a minute.