Bradley Manning's disenchantment with the war stemmed from politics. Photo: AFP
Washington: Private first class Bradley Manning, the young American soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, on Thursday edged closer to spending the rest of his life in a military prison cell – with the key thrown away.
In a preliminary ruling on the multiple charges Mr Manning faces, military judge Colonel Denise Lind threw out a defence motion that the prosecution had failed to produce evidence to sustain a charge that Manning had 'aided the enemy.'
Mr Manning has pleaded guilty to 10 charges, enough to put him away for 20 years.
But in insisting on the 'aiding' charge and 11 others, the Obama administration is holding out for another 154 years jail time – with no parole option.
There was no apparent reaction by Mr Manning to the decision, who adopted his customary pose of listening intensely to proceedings as the decision was read.
Sitting as judge and jury at Mr Manning's request, Colonel Lind concluded that in passing a mountain of documents and some videos to WikiLeaks, Manning knowingly gave the material to groups like Al Qaeda. She told the high-security court, at Fort Meade in Maryland, that the soldier had 'actual knowledge' that the documents would end up in enemy hands.
The court heard evidence from an officer who had trained Mr Manning as an intelligence analyst that up until the time of Mr Manning's arrest, he – the trainer – had never heard of WikiLeaks. But prosecutor Captain Angel Overgaard countered that Manning was no mere infantryman or truck driver.
“Pfc Manning is distinct…because he had all the training. And this was his job. He knew exactly the consequences of his actions.”
The judge's ruling sparked new criticism of the fairness of the US system of military justice. Already under attack for its failure to respond adequately to rampant sexual abuse in the ranks, its treatment of Mr Manning is becoming a platform for demands that there be a rethink of how the military deals with whistleblowers.
Mr Manning's lawyer, David Coombs, warned during proceedings that a guilty verdict would set an 'extremely' bad precedent' that would impact all whistleblowers.
Claiming to be 'extraordinarily disappointed' by the decision, Colonel Morris Davis, formerly a director of the US Air Force's judicial system and chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo, told The Guardian that normally he was a defender of the system of military justice, but he was rethinking his support because the heavying of Mr Manning.
Comparing the open-throttle pursuit of Mr Manning with the aftermath of the Haditha atrocity during the Iraq War, in which 24 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were gunned down by US Marines, Davis said: “When you think about these different responses, it suggests to me that the military justice system is not working.”
In the military court cases after Haditha, all charges against six of the marines were dropped; one of their comrades was found not guilty; and another was convicted on just a single count by which he avoided jail as a punishment.
Describing the Thursday's Mr Manning decision as 'a travesty of justice,' Amnesty International's senior director for international law, Widney Brown told reporters: “It's absolutely clear that the charge of 'aiding the enemy' has no basis and the charge should be withdrawn.”
But the reaction from the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, was more nuanced, with project director Steven Aftergood, telling reporters that Manning had gone over the top in his leaking – the videos, yes; but so much of the classified documents he passed 'had no obvious news value or larger public interest.'
Under military law, the 'aiding' charge carries the death penalty – but the prosecution is asking only for jail time. The charge covers 'any person who aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or without proper authority, knowingly harbours or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly.”