The U.S. soldier accused of passing on state secrets to WikiLeaks says he believes that the American people have a right to know the true costs of war

Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of the biggest unauthorised disclosure of state secrets in U.S. history, has admitted for the first time being the source of the leak, telling a military court that he passed the information to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks because he believed the American people had a right to know the “true costs of war.”

At a pre-trial hearing on a Maryland military base, Manning, 25, who faces spending the rest of his life in military custody, read out a 35-page statement in which he gave an impassioned account of his motives for transmitting classified documents and videos he had obtained while working as an intelligence analyst outside Baghdad.

Sitting at the defence bench in a hushed courtroom, Manning said he had been sickened by the apparent “bloodlust” he had witnessed in a video of a helicopter crew involved in an attack on a group in Baghdad that turned out to include Reuters correspondents and children.

He believed the Afghan and Iraq war logs published by WikiLeaks, initially in association with a consortium of international media organisations that included the Guardian, were “among the more significant documents of our time revealing the true costs of war.”

The decision to pass the classified information to a public website was motivated, he told the court, by his depression about the state of military conflict in which the U.S. was mired. Manning said: “We were obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and ignoring goals and missions. I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general [that] might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counterterrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day.” In a highly unusual move for a defendant in such a serious criminal prosecution, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges out of his own volition — not as part of a plea bargain with the prosecution. He admitted to having possessed and wilfully communicated to an unauthorised person — presumably Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks — all the main elements of the disclosure.

That covered the “Collateral Murder” video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq; some U.S. diplomatic cables, including one of the early WikiLeaks publications, the Reykjavik cable; portions of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs; some of the files on detainees in Guantánamo; and two intelligence memos.

The charges to which he pleaded guilty carry a two-year maximum sentence each, committing Manning to a possible upper limit of 20 years in military prison. But the plea does not avert a long and complex trial, which is currently scheduled to begin on June 3.

Manning pleaded not guilty to 12 counts that relate to the major offences of which he is accused by the U.S. government. Specifically, he denied he had been involved in “aiding the enemy” — the idea that he knowingly gave help to al-Qaeda and caused secret intelligence to be published on the Internet aware that by doing so it would become available to the enemy.

As he read his statement, Manning was flanked by his civilian lawyer, David Coombs, and two military defence lawyers. In full uniform, Manning read out the document at high speed, occasionally stumbling over the words and at other points laughing at his own comments.

He recounted how he had first become aware of WikiLeaks in 2009. He was particularly impressed by its release in November that year of more than 5,00,000 text messages sent on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Manning told how he had originally copied the war logs as a good housekeeping measure to have quick access to the information. But the more he read into the data, the more he was concerned about what it was uncovering.

He decided to take a copy on a memory stick when he went back from Iraq to the U.S. on leave in January 2010. There, having failed to interest the Washington Post and the New York Times in the stash of information, he turned to WikiLeaks. On his return to Iraq, he encountered a video that showed an Apache helicopter attack from 2007 in which a group of people in Baghdad had come under U.S. fire. The group was later found to have included civilians, children and two Reuters correspondents who died.

Embarrass but not damage

Manning said he had been troubled by the resistance of the military authorities to releasing the video to Reuters, and a claim from on high that it might not still exist. When he looked through the video on a secure military database he was also troubled by the attitude of the aerial weapons team in the Apache — “the bloodlust they seemed to have. They seemed not to value human life.” He related that in the video a man who has been hit by the U.S. forces is seen crawling injured through the dust, at which point one of the helicopter crew is heard wishing the man would pick up a weapon so that they could kill him. “For me that was like a child torturing an ant with a magnifying glass.” After he had uploaded the video to WikiLeaks, which then posted it as the now notorious “Collateral Murder” video, Manning said he was approached by a senior WikiLeaks figure code-named “Ox.” He assumed this was probably Assange. Of the largest portion of the WikiLeaks disclosures — the 2,50,000 U.S. diplomatic cables — Manning said he was convinced they would embarrass but not damage the U.S. “In many ways they were a collection of cliques and gossip,” he said.

The charges

Manning admitted 10 charges known in military jargon as “lesser and included” — a set of charges that are less serious than those alleged by the army. He admitted unauthorised possession of various classified documents and videos and “wilfully communicating” them to a third party — WikiLeaks. Each charge carries a top sentence of two years, opening him up to a possible maximum sentence of 20 years in military custody.

This is a “naked plea” — meaning it is not part of a plea deal with the prosecution.

Manning denied the major offences the U.S. government alleges he committed. Top of the pile is “aiding the enemy,” a count under the Espionage Act that carries a life sentence with no chance of parole. Manning still faces trial on these counts, with proceedings due to start on June 3.

He also denied stealing a U.S. government list of global addresses; that he committed computer violations that he will argue were widely disregarded in his military unit; and that he transmitted the information to WikiLeaks “with reason to believe that such information could be used to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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