The trial of Bradley Manning begins today in a jury-less courtroom at Maryland's Fort Meade. Manning will almost certainly face prison, having already pled guilty to ten charges related to his release of classified documents to Wikileaks. The years-long delay in bringing the trial means that it begins at a particularly tricky political moment for President Obama, involving a number of flashpoints for the administration.
In February, Manning filed his first pleas in the case, more than a thousand days after his May 2010 arrest in Iraq. Most were "lesser included offenses" related to the possession and transfer of documents, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years — and most of the pleas have not yet been accepted. He pled not guilty to the most serious charges, including that of "aiding the enemy," which carries a life sentence. In order to demonstrate that Manning is guilty of that charge, prosecutors (working for the United States Army) will need to show that he "knowingly gave intelligence information to al-Qaida" and other groups, as the Guardian writes in its excellent overview of the trial. At that hearing, Manning also waived his right to a jury, putting his fate in the hands of Army Colonel Denise Lind.
Several of the charges Manning faces fall under the Espionage Act of 1917 — the same piece of legislation that is the centerpiece of the Justice Department's investigations into reporters from the AP and Fox News. (Another two of the charges to which Manning already pled relate to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law used to charge Aaron Swartz.) In order to be convicted on the Espionage Act counts, the Army must show that Manning sought to obtain the classified material "to be used to the injury of the United States." The Los Angeles Times notes the importance of this point.
"The government can't win just by showing up," said Elizabeth Goitein, an expert on government secrecy and co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. "It has to prove that Manning had reason to believe his disclosures would harm national security."
In the lengthy statement he presented in February, Manning insisted that he only released the documents because he thought they would not do any harm. "I believe that the public release of these cables would not damage the United States," he said, "however, I did believe that the cables might be embarrassing, since they represented very honest opinions and statements behind the backs of other nations and organizations." To prove otherwise, the prosecutors may call as many as 140 witnesses, perhaps including one of the SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound. The scale of the presentation means that the trial could last for at least three months.
It's not clear how much of those three months will be made public. Much of the trial focuses on documents that are still classified — despite the fact that they're also publicly available with a quick Google search. The Guardian quotes the Center for Constitutional Rights' Michael Ratner.
The bottom line is that they are hearing a lot of witness testimony in secret so that they can discuss WikiLeaks documents that are already in the public domain. That's a completely absurd reason for closing parts of a trial.
(If you're interested in following the trial on Twitter, follow the Guardian reporter who provided that overview, Ed Pilkington. Also recommended: journalists Alexa O'Brien and Kevin Gosztola — though it's not clear how much information they'll be able to provide as the trial presses on.)
The extensive delay in bringing Manning to trial has almost certainly helped him in the court of public opinion. On the same day that his trial begins, The New Yorker runs an excoriation of the government's over-reliance on classifying documents. Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran an opinion piece from a former Joint Chiefs staffer who, among other revelations, described the inclusion of another New Yorker article among classified documents. And, of course, the press is increasingly frustrated with the administration's heavy hand in seeking records from media outlets. In January, media reporter Michael Calderone noted that there was no apparent chilling effect for the media following Manning:
While the Manning case could set a troubling precedent for journalists, there still seems to be a different standard when it comes to prosecutions, with some high-profile, establishment journalists continuing to report on classified briefings without any apparent repercussions for them or their sources.
That has changed. The Manning trial may end up being a critical placemark in Obama's presidency: a secret trial for the leak of classified documents related to a war that was the centerpiece of the 2008 campaign, using laws at the center of other high-profile federal prosecutions. And for months, as its top officials try to make the case that it wants to ensure robust protections for the media in leak investigations, the United States will simultaneously be arguing that a 25-year-old Army private deserves life in prison for releasing files he meant to help al Qaeda win the war on terror.
Top photo: Protestors outside Fort Meade call for Manning's release on Saturday. (AP)