Bradley Manning spoke during the sentencing portion of his court martial on Wednesday afternoon, reportedly apologizing for hurting the United States and for not addressing his concerns about the military's activity from "inside the system." The brief statement was part of his defense team's effort to minimize as much as possible the 90 years in prison to which the military judge could sentence the Army private. It also may have been some of the last public words of the man who was, until recently, responsible for the most significant leak of classified information in American history — words that will quickly be used as a filter to assess the behavior of Edward Snowden.
As always, cameras weren't allowed in the courtroom at Maryland's Fort Meade, site of the Manning trial and, coincidentally, the National Security Agency. Several journalists who were in attendance provided an overview of Manning's remarks. The Guardian describes the scene:
Looking nervous, he turned to [military judge] Colonel Denise Lind, and said: "First, your honour, I wart to start off with an apology. I am sorry that my actions hurt people; I am sorry that they hurt the United States."
He added: "I am sorry for unintended consequence of my actions. When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people."
Courthouse News Service continues:
"I should have worked more aggressively inside the system," Manning said. "I had options, and I should have used these options."
RT.com notes a powerful statement.
MANNING: "How on Earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over those w/ proper authority?"— RT America (@RT_America) August 14, 2013
(Update: Journalist Alexa O'Brien transcribed the entire statement.)
It's important to remember that Manning's statement was not intended to present the case for his innocence, in contrast to his lengthy remarks in February. Instead, it was meant to convince Lind to be lenient in the sentence she applied. Certainly, his choice to suggest that he behaved inappropriately be going outside the chain of command was designed to elicit that response.
In light of the recent debate over the leaks of classified information about the NSA's surveillance system, it's hard not to consider the regret implicit in Manning's statement. Many have criticized Snowden's decision to flee the United States and avoid punishment as suggesting that he cannot therefore be considered a whistleblower. In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus made the case succinctly: "Snowden simply chose to bypass the system — risking national security, in the assessment of intelligence officials — without trying alternatives such as using the whistleblower statute or going to Congress." Snowden did so in part because he was aware of the treatment of Manning, including extended periods in solitary confinement.
By suggesting, even in self-service, that he could or should have availed himself of internal mechanisms for ameliorating what he saw as the problem, Manning gives ammunition to those who disagree with what Snowden did. In reality, the idea is impossible: Manning's stated goal was to bring attention to the futility of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No internal chain-of-command process would have allowed Manning to have that effect.
It is impossible to fault Manning for speaking in his own defense, to say what he (and presumably his lawyers) thought would be the most effective way of trimming those 90 years in prison down to, say, 40. It is impossible even to fault Manning for having a legitimate change of heart on what he did and how he did it. As always, the overlap between the cases of Snowden and Manning are imprecise and prone to overinterpretation. But rest assured: Manning's statement will come up again in the context of Edward Snowden.