The ongoing trial of army intelligence officer and whistleblower Bradley Manning (25) re-entered the spotlight this week when prosecutors in the military tribunal that he is facing in Fort Meade, Maryland, clashed with his defence team over proposed dismissal of the most serious charge Mr. Manning is facing: “aiding the enemy”.
Mr. Manning is facing 22 charges relating to allegations that he leaked hundreds of thousands of confidential State Department cables and evidence of U.S. military attacks carried out in Afghanistan and Iraq, of which he has pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges that carry a total sentence of 20 years in prison.
The offences include aiding the enemy; espionage; stealing government property; and “wanton publication” which could leave him facing life plus 149 years in a military prison if convicted, noted journalist Alexa O’ Brien, who is meticulously documenting transcripts and other data available from the highly opaque trial.
Mr. Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, has argued that U.S. prosecutors have not presented evidence that his client had “the requisite knowledge that al Qaeda or the enemy used WikiLeaks”, and it was argued that “Anything less than actual knowledge would set a dangerous precedent for a free press... because military prosecutors... stated that they would have charged Manning similarly had the organisation been The New York Times and not WikiLeaks.”
The latest turn in the proceedings could, however, have a significant impact on how heavily the U.S. government is able to come down on whistleblowers and the media organisations they work with.
Coming as it does in the wake of The Guardian and Washington Post exposés on mass automated surveillance undertaken by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and the Obama administration’s subsequent international manhunt for whistleblower Edward Snowden, there is considerable risk that Judge Lind’s ruling on the “aiding the enemy” charge could spur on the administration’s so-called “War on Leaks”.
Appearing for defence last week, Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School told presiding military judge, Colonel Denise Lind, that “the cost of finding Pfc. Manning guilty of aiding the enemy would impose” too great a burden on the “willingness of people of good conscience but not infinite courage to come forward”, and “would severely undermine the way in which leak-based investigative journalism has worked in the tradition of [the] free press in the U.S”.
He added that if passing material to an organisation that could then be read by anyone with an internet connection was tantamount to handing it over to an enemy, it essentially implied that leaks to media automatically fall into this category.
“That can't possibly be the claim,” Professor Benkler added.