This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Bradley Manning, a 23-year-old from Crescent, Oklahoma, enlisted in the U.S. military in 2007 to give something back to his country and, he hoped, the world.
For the past seven months, Army Private First Class Manning has been held in solitary confinement in the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia. Twenty-five thousand other Americans are also in prolonged solitary confinement, but the conditions of Manning's pre-trial detention have been sufficiently brutal for the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on Torture to announce an investigation.
Pfc. Manning is alleged to have obtained documents, both classified and unclassified, from the Department of Defense and the State Department via the Internet and provided them to WikiLeaks. (That "alleged" is important because the federal informant who fingered Manning, Adrian Lamo, is a felon convincted of computer-hacking crimes. He was also involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution in the month before he levelled his accusation. All of this makes him a less than reliable witness.) At any rate, the records allegedly downloaded by Manning revealed clear instances of war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, widespread torture committed by the Iraqi authorities with the full knowledge of the U.S. military, previously unknown estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed at U.S. military checkpoints, and the massive Iraqi civilian death toll caused by the American invasion.
For bringing to light this critical but long-suppressed information, Pfc. Manning has been treated not as a whistleblower, but as a criminal and a spy. He is charged with violating not only Army regulations but also the Espionage Act of 1917, making him the fifth American to be charged under the act for leaking classified documents to the media. A court-martial will likely be convened in the spring or summer.
Politicians have called for Manning's head, sometimes literally. And yet a strong legal defense for Pfc. Manning is not difficult to envision. Despite many remaining questions of fact, a legal defense can already be sketched out. What follows is an "opening statement" for the defense. It does not attempt to argue individual points of law in any exhaustive way. Rather, like any opening statement, it is an overview of the vital legal (and political) issues at stake, intended for an audience of ordinary citizens, not Judge Advocate General lawyers.
After all, it is the court of public opinion that ultimately decides what a government can and cannot get away with, legally or otherwise.
Opening Statement for the Defense of Bradley Manning, Soldier and Patriot
U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning has done his duty. He has witnessed serious violations of the American military's Uniform Code of Military Justice, violations of the rules in U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10, and violations of international law. He has brought these wrongdoings to light out of a profound sense of duty to his country, as a citizen and a soldier, and his patriotism has cost him dearly.
In 2005, General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: "It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member [in Iraq], if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to try to stop it." This, in other words, was the obligation of every U.S. service member in Operation Iraqi Freedom; this remains the obligation of every U.S. service member in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It is a duty that Pfc. Manning has fulfilled.
Who is Pfc. Bradley Manning? He is a 23-year-old Private First Class in the U.S. Army. He was raised in Crescent, Oklahoma (population 1,281, according to the last census count). He enlisted in 2007. "He was basically really into America," says a hometown friend. "He was proud of our successes as a country. He valued our freedom, but probably our economic freedom the most. I think he saw the U.S. as a force for good in the world."
When Bradley Manning deployed to Iraq in October 2009, he thought that he'd be helping the Iraqi people build a free society after the long nightmare of Saddam Hussein. What he witnessed firsthand was quite another matter.
He soon found himself helping the Iraqi authorities detain civilians for distributing "anti-Iraqi literature" — which turned out to be an investigative report into financial corruption in their own government entitled "Where does the money go?" The penalty for this "crime" in Iraq was not a slap on the wrist. Imprisonment and torture, as well as systematic abuse of prisoners, are widespread in the new Iraq. From the military's own Sigacts (Significant Actions) reports, we have a multitude of credible accounts of Iraqi police and soldiers shooting prisoners, beating them to death, pulling out fingernails or teeth, cutting off fingers, burning with acid, torturing with electric shocks or the use of suffocation, and various kinds of sexual abuse including sodomization with gun barrels and forcing prisoners to perform sexual acts on guards and each other.
Manning had more than adequate reason to be concerned about handing over Iraqi citizens for likely torture simply for producing pamphlets about corruption in a government notorious for its corruptness.
Like any good soldier, Manning immediately took these concerns up the chain of command. And how did his superiors respond? His commanding officer told him to "shut up" and get back to rounding up more prisoners for the Iraqi Federal Police to treat however they cared to.
Now, you have already heard what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about an American soldier's duties when confronted with the torture and abuse of prisoners. Ever since our country signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture, it has been the law of our land that handing over prisoners to a body that will torture them is a war crime. Nevertheless, between early 2009 and August of last year, our military handed over thousands of prisoners to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well what would happen to many of them.
The next time Pfc. Manning encountered evidence of war crimes, he took a different course of action.
On the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) shared by the Departments of Defense and State Manning soon found irrefutable evidence of possible war crimes, including a now-infamous "Collateral Murder" video in which a U.S. Apache helicopter mowed down some 18 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, on a street in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The world has now seen and been shocked by this video which Reuters is alleged to have had in its possession but had not yet made public. Manning is alleged to have leaked it to the whistleblower site WikiLeaks in April 2010.
Manning also found a video and an official report on American air strikes on the village of Granai in Afghanistan's Farah Province (also known as "the Granai massacre"). According to the Afghan government, 140 civilians, including women and a large number of children, died in those strikes. He is alleged to have released that video as part of a tranche of some 92,000 military documents relating to our escalating war in Afghanistan — already the longest war our nation has ever fought — and Pakistan, where the war is steadily spreading. Manning is also alleged to have released to WikiLeaks some 392,000 documents regarding the Iraq War, many of which relate to the torture of prisoners, as well as some 251,000 State Department cables.
Now, in your judgment of Bradley Manning, please know that the stakes are indeed high, but not in the feverish way our political and media elites have been telling you from nearly every newspaper, channel, and website in the land. We will want you, a true jury of Manning's military peers, to ask a few questions about what's really been going on in this trial — and in this country. After all, when we reward lawyers in the Justice Department who created memos that made torture legal with federal judgeships and regular newspaper columns, while locking lock up a whistle-blowing private, you have to ask: What country are we now living in?
This trial couldn't be more important or your judgment more crucial. The honor of our country is very much at stake in how you decide. When we let the aerial slaughter of civilian noncombatants pass without comment or review, when a reported 92 children die from an American air strike on an Afghan village and 18 civilians are shot dead on a Baghdad street without the slightest accountability, except when it comes to locking up the private who ensured that we would know about these acts — let me repeat — the honor of your country and mine is at stake and at risk. Not the security of your country, though the prosecution will claim otherwise, but the honor of our country, and especially the honor of our military.
Pfc. Bradley Manning is one soldier who has done his duty. He has complied with it to the letter. Now you must do your duty as members of this jury and as soldiers.
Our Whistleblower Laws Protect Pfc. Manning
The prosecution will surely tell you that none of our existing whistleblower protection laws, interpreted narrowly, apply to Bradley Manning.
I say otherwise, and so will the experts we will call to the stand. You will hear from legal expert Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and former whistleblower who was purged, punished, and then vindicated for her courageous acts of disclosing illegal wrongdoing inside the Bush administration's Department of Justice. Ms. Radack will explain to you why and how Bradley Manning is well protected by our current laws. After all, the Whistleblower Protection Act is designed to protect a government employee who exposes fraud, waste, abuse, or illegality to anyone inside or outside a government agency, including a member of the news media. This is well supported by case law. (See Horton v. Dep't of Navy, 66. F3d 279, 282 (Fed. Cir. 1995)]. Isn't that exactly what Pfc. Bradley Manning has done?
As a fallback argument, the prosecution is sure to suggest that WikiLeaks is not a real media entity in the way that the New York Times is. Any one of you who has ever gotten the news and information from the Internet knows otherwise.
The prosecution will also be eager to inform you that the Military Whistleblower Protection Act (MWPA) does not apply here. We, however, will prove to you that the act applies with great and particular force to Pfc. Manning. For one thing, the MWPA not only allows an even wider array of government officials to make disclosures of classified information, it also broadens the scope of what kinds of disclosure a soldier can make. It expressly allows disclosures of classified information by members of the armed forces if they have a "reasonable belief" that what is being disclosed offers evidence of a "violation of the law," "an abuse of authority," or "a substantial danger to public safety." In other words, the purpose of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act is to protect soldiers just like Pfc. Manning who report on improper — or in this case, patently illegal — activities by other military personnel.
Now, there is no strict precedent, the prosecution will claim, for any of our whistleblower protection laws to apply to Pfc. Manning. But as we will make clear, there is no contrary precedent either. That's because we've never seen a whistleblower disclosure as massive, vivid, and horrific as this one. We are in uncharted territory. If the plain language of these whistleblower protection laws is unclear, legal convention dictates that we look at the laws' intent. Clearly Congress meant, and legislative history supports this, for the whistleblower protection laws to protect whistleblowers, not — as this administration seems to think — to prosecute them.
The progress of our common law is prudent, it is incremental, it is slow. But our common law is not dead. It does progress. Whether the common law will take that small step forward in the case of Pfc. Manning is your duty to decide. And your decision will have repercussions.
For if you convict Bradley Manning, then you are also clearing the way to try and possibly convict Army Specialist Joseph Darby, the whistleblower who leaked the Abu Ghraib photos and thereby ended acts of torture and abuse that were shaming our military and our nation. Now, Specialist Darby did not leak the photos of this disgrace up the chain of command or to the Army Inspector General as our whistleblower law envisions. Instead, he leaked it straight to the Army Criminal Investigative Division, and this path is not strictly what our whistleblower laws allow. Was Spc. Joseph Darby doing his duty as an honorable soldier when he exposed the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib? Or was he just trying to damage the United States? Your verdict on Bradley Manning could reopen that question, and answer it anew.