Trial of US army whistleblower Bradley Manning begins today

Army private has admitted to passing massive trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks

A large poster was erected for supporters to write messages to Bradley Manning during a mass rally for the US army whistleblower on Saturday in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photograph: Lexey Swall/Getty Images

A large poster was erected for supporters to write messages to Bradley Manning during a mass rally for the US army whistleblower on Saturday in Fort Meade, Maryland. Photograph: Lexey Swall/Getty Images

 


After 1,100 days in military prison, Bradley Manning, the self-confessed source of the largest disclosure of US state secrets in history, will be brought to trial today at the culmination of the most aggressive prosecution over an official leak in a generation.

The army private, who has admitted to passing a massive trove of classified documents to the open information website WikiLeaks, will brace himself this morning for a trial slated to last three months in which the US government is primed to call more than 140 prosecution witnesses.

Experts on constitutional law and whistleblowing warn that the court martial risks chilling free speech and turning the internet into a legal danger zone.

Of the 21 counts faced by Pte Manning at his trial at Fort Meade, Maryland, the most serious is that he knowingly gave intelligence information to al-Qaeda by transmitting hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which were then published by several allied international newspapers.

Pte Manning is accused of “aiding the enemy” in violation of article 104 of the uniform code of military justice. By indirectly unleashing a torrent of secrets to the internet, the prosecution alleges, he in effect made them available to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts to help them inflict injury on the US.


‘Dangerous new ground’
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be the foremost liberal authority on constitutional law in the US, said the charge could set a worrying precedent.

“Charging any individual with the extremely grave offence of ‘aiding the enemy’ on the basis of nothing beyond the fact that the individual posted leaked information on the web and thereby ‘knowingly gave intelligence information’ to whoever could gain access to it there, does indeed seem to break dangerous new ground.”

He said the trial could have “far-reaching consequences for chilling freedom of speech and rendering the web a hazardous environment, well beyond any demonstrable national security interest”.

“Aiding the enemy” carries the death penalty. The US government has indicated it will not seek that punishment, but Pte Manning still faces a maximum sentence of life in military custody with no parole.

Military prosecutors have outlined the skeleton of their case against Pte Manning in pretrial hearings.

They will seek to show that bin Laden personally instructed an aide to download elements of WikiLeaks, including the Afghan war logs, on to digital storage devices so he could read them.

The court will hear from an anonymous witness referred to as “John Doe”, who is believed to be one of the 22 US navy seals who killed bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

The witness will testify he retrieved from the compound three items of digital media containing WikiLeaks material.

Col Denise Lind, the judge presiding over the court martial in the absence of a jury, has ruled that for Pte Manning to be found guilty of “aiding the enemy” the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly gave helpful information to al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and a third terrorist group whose identity remains classified.– (Guardian service)