Manning defence rests its case

Harvard law professor testifies that WikiLeaks performed legitimate journalistic function

US army Pte Bradley Manning (centre) is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland. Pte  Manning is accused of leaking more than 700,000 classified files, videos and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.  Photograph: Jose Luis Magana/Files/Reuters

US army Pte Bradley Manning (centre) is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland. Pte Manning is accused of leaking more than 700,000 classified files, videos and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Photograph: Jose Luis Magana/Files/Reuters

Thu, Jul 11, 2013, 09:37

The defence in the court-martial of US soldier Bradley Manning rested its case yesterday with a Harvard law professor testifying that WikiLeaks performed a legitimate journalistic function when Manning gave it vast archives of secret government files.

The professor, Yochai Benkler, who wrote a widely cited academic article about WikiLeaks and the evolution of watchdog journalism in the Internet era, testified that at the time of Pte Manning’s leaks the group had established itself as playing a reputable and valuable journalistic role by publishing documents about corporate misconduct and government corruption around the world.

“It’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points,” he said, “where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public, and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere.”

A defence lawyer, David Coombs, called Prof Benkler as an expert witness in an effort to undercut charges that Pte Manning’s confessed leaking was not merely illegal but called for more severe charges like “wanton” misconduct and “aiding the enemy,” the latter of which could result in a life sentence.

After Prof Benkler completed his testimony, Mr Coombs told the judge, Col Denise Lind, that the defence was resting after three days. The prosecution, by contrast, took five weeks to present its case.

Col Lind asked Pte Manning - who during the pretrial phase had read a lengthy statement confessing to most of the leaking with which he had been charged and explaining his motivations - to verify that he had chosen not to testify in his defence.

“That’s correct, Your Honor,” he replied. It is not clear whether the defence will seek to put on a rebuttal case before closing arguments. The trial will resume next week.

Prof Benkler’s testimony briefly shifted the focus back to WikiLeaks, which in 2010 enjoyed fame and endured criticism over the leaks of hundreds of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic files. The trial has served to emphasize that Pte Manning was the real catalyst for the leaks.

A prosecutor, Capt Joe Morrow, asked Prof Benkler whether he agreed that the release of documents in bulk was not journalism. Prof Benkler disagreed. Sometimes, he said, a database holds important information even though no single document is newsworthy by itself.

As an example, he cited an analysis by the group Iraq Body Count of the logs of Iraq War incidents, which Pte Manning leaked, that suggested there had been far higher civilian casualties than officials had estimated. Prof Benkler has written opinion articles criticising the severe charges leveled against Pte Manning as a threat to investigative journalism. Tracing the history of WikiLeaks’ activities, Prof Benkler said it had initially encountered skepticism over the authenticity of the documents it published.

Then, he said, after it had published dozens of documents without having to retract any, it was increasingly accepted as a legitimate journalistic player. The third phase, he said, came after it began publishing the files Pte Manning provided.

US government officials and lawmakers began denouncing the organisation. vice-president Joe Biden, for example, called its leader, Julian Assange, a “high-tech terrorist,” and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen, said it might have “blood on its hands,” although defense secretary Robert M Gates later conceded that some of the reaction had been “overwrought.”

But such claims were amplified, Prof Benkler noted, by commentators on Fox News and in the Weekly Standard, among other outlets, who sharply criticised WikiLeaks.

Its journalistic reputation was also undercut by two prominent articles published by The New York Times - an opinion column by Thomas L Friedman and a lengthy first-person magazine article by Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor at the time - portraying the group as anarchists and “a secretive cadre of anti-secrecy vigilantes.”

At the same time, Prof Benkler said, many other news organisations were inaccurately reporting that WikiLeaks had put online 250,000 cables, even though at that point it had published only 272 cables that were chosen and simultaneously published by the traditional news organisations that had obtained advance access to them. WikiLeaks did ultimately release all the cables, although it blamed an editor at The Guardian for inadvertently revealing a password that made their release inevitable.

Despite the criticism WikiLeaks has endured, Prof Benkler said the model it had developed was likely to endure. “WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralised leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive, and somebody else will build it,” he said. “But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muckraking and investigative journalism has always done.”