The Trials of Bradley Manning

by Barry Sheppard

June 7, 2013

The courts-martial trial of Pvt. Bradley Manning opened on June 3, and is expected to last 12 weeks.

The courageous U.S. soldier leaked a large trove of classified material documenting U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomatic cables exposing Washington’s machinations in the Middle East and elsewhere, and other material.

At a previous hearing, Manning admitted that he was the source of these leaks. As a result, he could have been sentenced to 20 years in military prison.

Manning denied that he was guilty of the most serious charges of “aiding the enemy” and “endangering U.S. forces,” under which he could face the death penalty or life in prison. The prosecutors say they will not seek the death penalty, but life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Not content with inflicting a 20-year sentence on him for exposing the truth, the military prosecutors and behind them the Obama administration are hell bent on convicting him on the more serious charges.

On the first day of the courts-martial, the prosecution outlined its case. Under the laws they are using, they do not have to prove that the material Manning released actually endangered U.S. troops or aided the “enemy.” Also, the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that Manning intended to do so.

The prosecution says it only needs to show that Manning was the source of the leaks, that they were then picked up and distributed to the press by Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and that the “enemy” read them or saw them in the media.

Since Manning has already admitted to being the source, and Wikileaks did distribute the material to the press, and many newspapers, TV outlets, social media, etc. around the world did carry them, and since it is quite likely that the “enemy” did see them, the case is closed and Manning is guilty.

By chance, I happen to be rereading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. While the story line is different, and Kafka’s protagonist is no hero like Bradley Manning, the legal “logic” in Kafka’s book is on a par with the prosecution’s in the courts-martial.

The prosecution does have some problems with its “reasoning”. One is, who exactly is “the enemy”? One of the most widely viewed of all the material Manning released was the video taken by U.S. soldiers from an assault helicopter in Iraq.

The video and the accompanying audio showed the soldiers in the helicopter asking for and getting approval to murder a group of unarmed Iraqis on the street, including two photographers working for Reuters. When some other Iraqis show up in a van to try to help survivors, they are blown away too.

Two of those who were killed in the van were children.

The killers in the helicopter were also caught chuckling and gloating about the murders.

One can understand why the release of this horrific video enraged the Bush and then the Obama administrations and the military. They want to keep the lid on any exposures of the truth about these wars.

That’s why the authorities were enraged about a different earlier leak, that of the graphic photos of the torture of Iraqis by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. When the existence of thousands of similar photos came to light, and they were viewed by some U.S. Senators behind closed doors, those thousands of photos were suppressed — on the grounds that releasing them would “aid the enemy” and “endanger the troops.”

In Afghanistan and Iraq, all who resist the U.S. occupation are “the enemy.” And many other citizens who are not combatants are also so considered, as the helicopter video demonstrated.

The prosecutors at Manning’s trial got around the difficulty having so many “enemies” by claiming they were only considering Osama bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda as having read the material Manning was the source of.

So the linkage becomes: Manning, Julian Assange, The New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets, and Osama bin Ladin. All in this chain are guilty.

That presents another problem for the prosecution. They want to tie in Wikileaks, but they want to let The New York Times off the hook, at least as far as the guilty verdict is concerned. (However one aim of the show trial is to threaten the media away from making such material public.) Also, they can’t indict much of the world’s press without looking foolish.

The military prosecutor kept pounding away at Wikileaks in his opening statement.

Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organization are the targets of the courts-martial in addition to Bradley Manning.

This has been true from the beginning, ever since Manning was arrested over three years ago. It explains why it has taken so long to bring him to trial — another violation of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a speedy trial.

All this time, the military has sought to break Manning, to get him to testify that Assange was his co-conspirator.

Marchers demand Manning’s freedom. San Francisco, 2012.

After his arrest in May, 2010, Manning was put in a stockade in Kuwait, where he was subjected to being observed at all times including while using the toilet, deprived of sleep, forced to stand naked before other soldiers including females, and similar acts of cruelty.

On July 29 of that year, he was transferred to the prison at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, and classified as a “Maximum Custody Detainee.”

There he was placed in solitary confinement in a windowless cell six feet by twelve feet containing a bed, a sink and a toilet. Guards checked on him every five minutes. He was allowed one hour each day to walk outside his cell, but not allowed to exercise while in his cell, with light bulbs on 24 hours a day.

He was not allowed to sleep between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., and if he dosed off, he was made to stand up. He was denied sheets and a pillow, and his clothes were removed except for underwear. Later his underwear was also taken.

Guards would taunt him, giving him orders such as to “turn left, don’t turn left,” and berated for such things as replying to questions with “yes” instead of “aye, aye,sir.”

As news of his treatment began to come out, voices began to be raised internationally. Juan Mendez, a United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture wrote that Manning’s treatment was “cruel, unusual and degrading.”

In January 2011, Amnesty International asked the British government to intervene, which it did not. In March 2011, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley criticized Manning’s treatment and was forced to resign two days later.

In early April that year, 295 academics (most of them American legal scholars) signed a letter arguing that Manning’s treatment was in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The Pentagon finally relented, and on April 20 transferred Manning to a medium-security prison, where he was placed in a larger cell with a window and a normal mattress with sheets and a pillow. He was then allowed to mingle with other prisoners, wear clothes, and keep personal objects in his cell.

They had failed to break him. They failed to get him to testify against Julian Assange with promises of a lighter sentence and better conditions. That is one reason they are going for the maximum sentence – vengeance. The other reason they seek harsh punishment is that while he has admitted to being the source of the leaks, he maintains that he was correct to do so to shed some light on the ugly truth of the U.S. wars. Their major objective is to terrorize others who might be whisle-blowers.

Bradley Manning is a true hero, a man of conscience.

Manning is gay. A group of his supporters wanted to march in this year’s San Francisco Gay Pride Parade with his picture to support and honor him. The powers that be leaned on the organizers of the parade to deny the Bradley Manning contingent access. The cowards caved in to this further attack on democratic rights.

There are other things to note about this courts-martial. One is that it is conducted under military law, not U.S. civil law. As a result, he will not be able to appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another is that the public will be kept in the dark about much of the trial. The military judge has already ruled at 24 prosecution witnesses will testify in secret and that evidence labeled “classified” will also be kept secret. Of course, this is being done to avoid “aiding the enemy” and “harming U.S. soldiers.” To add to the Kafkaesque flavor of this madness, those documents already leaked to the world by Wikileaks which are introduced at the trial will be done so in secret, since they remain “classified.”

What the judge will finally decide on Manning’s sentence will be influenced by the support manning receives in the U.S. and the world.

Barry Sheppard is a member of Solidarity in the Bay Area. He has written a two-volume political biography about his time as a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He writes a weekly letter from the U.S. for the Australian Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alternative magazine, where this article also appears.