Moral Low Ground


Bradley Manning Showed ‘the Emperor Has No Clothes,’ His Lawyer Says


Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service

Pfc. Bradley Manning’s massive disclosure of military secrets to WikiLeaks proved that “the emperor” – here, the U.S. classification system — “has no clothes,” a defense attorney said at the end of a landmark court-martial.

Manning, a 25-year-old former intelligence specialist, faces 22 charges connected with the disclosure of more than 700,000 military and diplomatic files, including battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. embassy cables, Guantanamo detainee profiles, and footage of airstrikes that killed civilians.

On Thursday, the lead prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, called him a “traitor,” “hacker” and “anarchist” who worked for WikiLeaks, almost immediately upon his deployment, to undermine the U.S. war effort and become notorious.

Defense attorney David Coombs mocked the prosecutor’s “diatribe” as a patchwork of “cherry-picked” quotations and “child’s logic.” He added that the government’s depiction of his client as a scheming saboteur was fundamentally incompatible with the defense’s view of him as “young, naive but good intentioned.”

“One of us is not telling you the truth,” Coombs said. “There is no way to look at the facts and see what Maj. Fein said yesterday.”

Both the defense and prosecution quoted Pfc. Manning telling an online confidant at the age of 22, “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months what would you do?”

Defense attorney David Coombs began his opening arguments with the second half of the quote, in which Manning says he saw “incredible things, awful things, things that belonged on the public domain.”

“That is a whistle-blower,” Coombs said. “That is somebody that wants to inform the American public.”

The only witness who cast Manning as disloyal to the United States was a former supervisor whom the young soldier had punched in the face. Spc. Jirleah Showman testified that Manning told her, “The flag means nothing to me,” but she never wrote anything down about the alleged incident.

Coombs said Showman’s hostility toward Manning gives her a motive to lie, and noted that every other witness who commented on their impressions of Manning described him as a promising intelligence analyst whose naive ideals alienated him from the fold. The proof of Manning’s good intentions lies in how he spoke in private chats, when he thought nobody was watching, about his ambitions, he added. Before he deployed, Manning told an online stranger: “I can apply what I learn to provide more information to my officers and commanders, and hopefully save lives.” The soldier added: “I feel a great responsibility and duty to people… It’s strange, I know.”

This optimistic outlook soured as Manning’s deployment progressed and he became more familiar with military bureaucracy.

A former sergeant deployed in Manning’s unit testified that Manning had once been troubled by an assignment to find protesters distributing “anti-Iraqi” literature that evidence showed was actually a scholarly critique of financial corruption within the new regime. In an online chat, Manning said his supervisor insisted on continuing to hand these protesters over to Iraqi Federal Police who had a reputation for indefinitely detaining and torturing political dissidents.

Defense attorneys also trace Manning’s disillusionment to a Christmastime incident in which insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device, killing a bystander but leaving the soldiers unharmed. Manning says his troops celebrated their good fortune, but he was concerned with the Iraqi dead.

Under the government’s telling, Manning started working for WikiLeaks, in essence, two weeks into his deployment by leaking files that they wanted purportedly requested with the 2009 Most-Wanted Leaks List. Prosecutors call the list Manning’s “guiding light,” and claim that he immediately started searching for footage of an Afghanistan airstrike that killed more than 100 people.

The problem with such logic is that the video never appeared on the Most-Wanted List, and it was protected by code that WikiLeaks could not crack, Coombs said. Moreover, the vast majority of Manning’s leaks do not appear anywhere on that list. Coombs compared the government’s theory with arriving to a wedding with a gift that neither the bride nor groom wanted.

Despite admitting a vast trove of other documents, Manning denies leaking the airstrike footage. He says he sent a decrypted version several months after the government’s timeline. The encrypted video was found on the computer of Jason Katz, a former Brookhaven Laboratory employee, whom Coombs contends was the actual source of this disclosure. Though WikiLeaks never released this video, it did publish footage of another airstrike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of two Reuters employees. Estimates vary as to whether nine to 12 civilians were killed in total.

Released under the title “Collateral Murder,” Coombs rolled tape and asked the judge to view the video from the perspective of a young man “who cares about human life.”

“The guy’s down,” Coombs said, referring to the Reuters reporter killed in the airstrike. “He’s being shot. He’s clearly wounded. We’re going to shoot him some more. They’re firing into a cloud of dust.”

One of the gunners can be heard in the footage saying, “C’mon buddy, all you have to do is pick up a weapon.”

Coombs commented: “He picks up something, and they’re going to kill him.”

“Nine lives, maybe more … extinguished,” he added. “Did they really deserve to die?”

Countering the lead prosecutor’s allegation that Manning engaged in “wholesale, indiscriminate leaking,” Coombs countered, “The amount of the documents in this case is the best evidence that he was discreet about what he chose.”

Manning has said, both in public statements and private chats, that he selected categories of data he believed would be safe for release while sparking conversation about how the U.S. conducts warfare and diplomacy. He culled cables, for example, only if that were marked “SipDis,” meaning they were meant to be seen by more than a million government eyes.

The soldier said he viewed the “significant action” battlefield reports, or SigActs, as historical data, and passed over far more sensitive “HumInt” reports, short for “human intelligence.”

Coombs asserted that Manning’s analysis was correct.

“Pfc. Manning was young and naive, but he wasn’t wrong,” he said.

Prosecutors claim that the leaked documents caused serious damage to national security. Coombs ridiculed this allegation with the morals of two children’s stories.

“Now, is the time to say, ‘The emperor has no clothes,'” he said. He added that the government’s “Chicken Little” response to their release is belied by its own inaction to the publication of the documents. A secret witness testifying from the defense from the Center for Army Lessons Learned, or CALL, testified that the military made no ground changes in Iraq and Afghanistan once WikiLeaks published the “war logs.” This undermines the prosecutors’ contention that the documents revealed the military’s “playbook” to al-Qaida and its affiliates, Coombs said.

The “aiding the enemy” charge rests on the notion that Manning helped al-Qaida and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula through “indirect means,” meaning through WikiLeaks. Prosecutors sought to prove this through evidence that Osama bin Laden and Adam Gadahn, a propagandist for the terror group, sought and received the information. Prosecutors claim that precedent supports their interpretation, pointing to the Civil War case of Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, who furtively leaked a roster of Union soldiers to an Alexandria, Va., newspaper. But Coombs said this interpretation puts any soldier at risk for speaking to a news outlet.

While prosecutors say Manning would have been prosecuted even if the New York Times were the sole publisher, they assert that the choice of WikiLeaks was more reckless. Arguments over the website’s legitimacy as a news outlet have centered on testimony by Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who wrote “A Free Irresponsible Press: WikiLeaks and the battle over the soul of the networked Fourth Estate.”

During his testimony, the professor refuted an Army counterintelligence document titled, “” – An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups?” as “mediocre.”

The fact that Manning sent the document to WikiLeaks has been used to show that Manning knew the possible threat that the organization posed, but Benkler said that the paper called the answer to its question an “intelligence gap.” Using traditional journalistic terms, it also called Julian Assange a “foreign staff writer” for WikiLeaks and described the website’s verification attempts as “prudent,” in one example.

Coombs said: “In this instance, giving something to a legitimate news organization is unfortunately – or fortunately depending what side of the fence you’re on – is the way we hold our government accountable.”

“The enemy may go to that,” he conceded, referring to any news organization. But this risk comes with the watchdog role the press serves, he added.

As he ended his remarks, Coombs asked, “Is Pfc. Manning someone who is a traitor, who has no loyalty to this country or the flag, and wanted to systematically harvest and download as much information as possible for his true employer, WikiLeaks?

“Is that what the evidence shows, or is he a young naive and good intentioned soldier … whose sole focus was maybe this could make a difference, maybe make a change?”

Prosecutors will have one more chance at rebuttal before deliberations. Judge Lind signaled that she would try to reach a verdict before July 31, the tentative start of the sentencing case. So far, the court has heard evidence of the potential damage Manning’s leaks could have caused to national security. The judge excluded evidence from the trial about whether harm actually occurred.

Manning’s attorneys said internal government assessments of the leaks indicate that the impact of the disclosures was minimal. Three years after Manning’s arrest, no journalist has confirmed a case in which an individual has been harmed or killed as a result of the soldier’s disclosures. The defense will have access to such evidence for the first time next week, and the government will have the chance to try to prove what the journalists around the world have been unable to uncover.

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One Comment

  1. Ivalene HammondJuly 27, 2013 at 7:36 amReply

    The child said, “The Emperor has no clothes.” And then they arrested him. The rest of the story.

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