Patriot or traitor?
Bradley Manning, the young, low-ranking soldier accused of sending more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks in the largest-ever disclosure of secret, embarrassing and classified U.S. documents, faces life in prison if convicted.
On Wednesday, Military Judge Colonel Denise Lind dismissed defence motions that all charges be tossed out, saying she found no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
That ruling in Fort Meade, Md., sets the stage for a court martial that will attract massive international attention – not least because military prosecutors seem intent on keeping much of it secret. At issue is far more than whether an American soldier in Baghdad circumvented the digital walls protecting national secrets.
Private First Class Manning, 24, has emerged as an unlikely hero of the anti-war movement in the Internet age and a cautionary tale that even the most supposedly secure military networks may be vulnerable.
The slight, almost frail-looking PFC Manning has entered no plea. Nor has he yet decided whether to elect trial by military jury or just a judge.
While many see him as a traitor who willfully leaked classified U.S. information while serving in Iraq, others, including rights groups and a handful of supporters sitting yesterday in the military courtroom, regard PFC Manning as a noble and brave anti-war activist. He is sometimes compared to Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the now-famous Pentagon Papers, a top-secret and highly critical U.S. government study of the Vietnam war.
Vice-President Joe Biden compared the downloading and leaking of the trove of classified documents PFC Manning is alleged to have funnelled to WikiLeaks as being akin to high-tech terrorism.
But Mr. Ellsberg, along with a host of others, have voiced spirited defences of PFC Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden where he faces sexual-misconduct charges.
"If I released the Pentagon Papers today, the same rhetoric and the same calls would be made about me … I would be called not only a traitor, which I was then …but I would be called a terrorist," Mr. Ellsberg has said. "Assange and Manning are no more terrorists than I am."
A small but ardent band of Manning supporters, linked primarily by the bradley.manning.org website, have managed to get his face and the case back into public view in Washington. Posters appeared in the Washington Metro this week with a picture of PFC Manning in fatigues and handcuffs. The posters extol him as a hero and patriot who exposed "the truth about government corruption in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world."
PFC Manning was stationed in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010. The prosecution claims he downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents and files – ranging from dreary diplomatic cables to cockpit video taken from U.S. helicopter gunships firing on journalists to classified military information. They were eventually published by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website now on life support after being largely starved of funds.
The defence team is also seeking dismissal of the most serious charge that PFC Manning "aided the enemy." Conviction could carry the death penalty, although prosecutors have already said they won't seek it in this case.
The pretrial hearing is expected to conclude Thursday. Further pre-trial hearings are expected this summer.
Although WikiLeaks's Mr. Assange currently faces no charges in the United States, both military and Federal Bureau of Investigation probes continue.
Judge Lind ruled that army prosecutors don't have to provide PFC Manning's lawyers with testimony to a grand jury in the WikiLeaks probe. It remains unclear if WikiLeaks, which along with several mainstream news organizations published large portions of the leaked material, could face criminal charges.