“More Questions than Answers” at the Bradley Manning Hearing

Here are the notes I took on the final day of Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing. The last day was brief – the defense and prosecution each gave their closing statements, and we were out of the courtroom in an hour – but revealing. Each side suggested the type of arguments they planned to make if and when the case goes to court-martial, with the prosecution meticulously reviewing each item of the alleged leak, and the defense outlining the military’s incompetence in handling Manning, and requesting a far reduced set of charges that would reflect a more honest understanding of what has been released. David Coombs, Manning’s chief legal counsel, opened his statement appropriately, addressing the Investigating Officer directly: “You are in a unique position to give the United States a reality check.”

Daniel Ellsberg answers questions // photo by Nathan Fuller

After the hearing adjourned, I accompanied Dan Ellsberg and Jeff Paterson to a brief press conference. While I was taking pictures, a pair of civilian lawyers who’d attended the hearing approached me with a barrage of questions about the proceedings – “Where are the warrants for these searches of files at Manning’s aunt’s house? … Where is the motion to suppress that evidence? … Are they even going to have to verify these alleged chat logs?” With limited information and no access to Coombs directly, I pointed the lawyers to Paterson, a Bradley Manning Support Network director and spokesperson, but he had few answers too.

One lawyer turned and bitterly mumbled “kangaroo court.” The other looked exasperated. “More questions than answers,” she said.

My only answer to those questions now is that I expect them to get more attention in the full trial. Maybe they should have been addressed at the hearing, but Coombs clearly has a strategy for working with what he’s got – which, in light of his closing argument, may involve a plea deal.

But the lawyers’ inquiries encouraged me to challenge plenty more dubious aspects of the hearing.

First, the prosecution’s argument that Manning “knew our enemies use the Internet,” knew they could access WikiLeaks, and leaked online sounds incredibly broad. This claim allows for anyone to be considered an enemy of the United States, and so leaking anything online is “indirectly” aiding our adversaries no matter where it is. As EFF writer Trevor Timm notes time and time again, though, while Manning sits in prison or in trial for these releases, ‘anonymous’ U.S. officials routinely leak classified information to the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times, as is politically convenient. As Timm and Glenn Greenwald frequently remind us, Bob Woodward has made a living off of publishing secret information via anonymous sources all the time. All of that information is, anonymously sourced, on the Internet. So the claim that leaking classified material online has anything to do with our enemies will always be made in bad faith. Then again, with President Obama’s expansion of executive powers in declaring wherever Anwar Al-Awlaki is to be part of a battlefield, or with the National Defense Authorization Act allowing for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, the claim that anyone could be an enemy falls right in line with American foreign policy.

The prosecution did reference these enemies and adversaries with a bit more specificity: Capt. Ashden Fein said Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and our “classified enemies” have access to the leaked information. At least the first two have been declared adversaries of the United States – but “classified enemies”? We’re not even allowed to know who our military is fighting?

Concluding his closing statements, Fein played an Al Qaeda propaganda video, in which a spokesperson discussed the State Department cables and said those fighting in the name of God have resources available to them on the Internet. We are supposed to be scared, and we are supposed to be angry with Manning for giving the Terrorists what they need. But with a necessary reality check, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was willing to give us, calling the WikiLeaks releases only “embarrassing” and the harms “modest,” it’s easy to see this claim is vastly overblown.

I hope these questions, those the lawyers introduced, and many more will be raised and explored at the (expected) court-martial. If the hearing is any indication, though, it won’t be easy: the military is keen to suppress journalist access, make a scene of uniformed supporters, and deny nearly all of the defense’s requested witnesses. But that’s what WikiLeaks has always been about – seeking truth and answering questions in the face of ever-powerful adversity.

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