It was as if the gods themselves had conspired with other forces to restrict media access to the military trial of Bradley Manning (25) on this desolate army base in rural Maryland.
After a hair-raising journey that involved leaping through hedges in heavy rain and coming face to face with large deer species, I managed to finally join a group of other determined reporters who made it into the viewing galleries for the court-martial proceedings.
By that time it was evident that of 350 organisations that had applied for media credentials for the trial, only 70 had been granted by the military.
What unfolded before the eyes of those in attendance was the start of arguably the most important trial of not only the man who is facing a life sentence for “aiding the enemy” by leaking classified military documents and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, the online whistleblower group, but also a seminal moment in the Obama administration’s so-called “War on Leaks.”
Through most of the proceedings, which were dominated by the prosecution spelling out how it believed Mr. Manning transmitted 251,287 cables to Julian Assange of Wikileaks, the diminutive army intelligence officer in a green military uniform sat silently and answered only when queried by the judge, Army Colonel Denise Lind.
While Judge sometimes smiled almost indulgently at Mr. Manning the prosecution wasted little time in briefing the court on its long inventory of exhibits and other evidence to argue that he had “systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of documents from classified databases and then dumped that information on to the internet into the hands of the enemy.”
Media and Bradley Manning Support Network members watched keenly as government prosecution lawyer Captain Joe Morrow advanced arguments about Mr. Manning violating “multiple signed non-disclosure agreements” as he passed on incriminating videos showing the July 2007 Apache helicopter kill incident in which civilians and two journalists perished, the 2009 “Gharani airstrike,” in which “150 men, women and children” died, and most notably 74,000 service-members’ personal information and email IDs.
While the military lawyers placed numerous IM chat logs between “Bradass87” and “PressAssociation” – allegedly Mr. Assange – as evidence of illicit data transfers – many lines of the exhibits were blurred and not visible to the courtroom attendees.
Yet Captain Morrow pressed on with arguments that Mr. Manning had used a programme called “Wget” to automate download and then transmit 1000 diplomatic cables per hour. He added that the “massive downloads” from the U.S. military’s secret-level SIPRNET had been analysed by computer forensics expert David Shaver, and it was suggested that Mr. Manning's transmission of the so-called CIDNE-Afghanistan database was in fact “asked for and received” by none other than Osama bin Laden.
Despite being allocated far less time for his arguments before the court’s lunch recess Mr. Manning’s defence lawyer, David Coombs argued that Mr. Manning “is not a typical soldier,” and had the back of his army dog-tags inscribed with the word “humanist.”
Mr. Coombs stressed that Mr. Manning had been deeply troubled by what he saw in the videos of the 2009 and 2007 air attacks on civilians. Although he was “young and naive but well-intentioned,” Mr. Manning believed in “lifting the fog of war and showing the true nature of 21st-century asymmetric warfare,” he added.
Answering the prosecutions statements about Mr. Manning’s SIPRNET searches for “retention of interrogation videos,” for Guantanamo Bay prison detainees, Mr. Coombs said that Mr. Manning wanted to give a “true account” of the inmates who were incarcerated there unnecessarily “year after year without hope.”
With the case proceeding over the summer Mr. Manning faces anywhere from 20 years to life in prison over the 22 charges against him, ten of which he has admitted guilt for. The case comes as the Obama administration has faced criticism over coming down hard on leaks to media, including for covert phone taps on the Associated Press agency.