In Bradley Manning Trial, U.S. Government Strives to Intimidate Future Whistleblowers

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Posted June 5, 2013

Interview with Michael Ratner, Julian Assange's attorney and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The trial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning got underway this week in a military courtroom at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested just over three years ago and is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. He has been held in prison since his arrest, including time held naked in solitary confinement, purportedly as a measure to prevent his suicide, although Manning was never determined to be a threat to himself.

Among the documents Manning admitted to downloading and distributing was the so-called "collateral murder video," showing a U.S. helicopter crew shooting and killing two unarmed local Reuters journalists and several civilians in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. In February, Manning pled guilty to some of the less serious charges, which could result in up to a 20-year prison sentence. During those court proceedings, he read a 10,000-word statement explaining how he hoped his actions would "spark a dialogue" about U.S. foreign policy. In the current trial, Manning now faces charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, and if convicted could face life in prison.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Michael Ratner just before Manning's trial began. Ratner is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the attorney representing Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who received the government documents from Manning. Here, Ratner puts Manning's trial in historical perspective during the current post-9/11 era, when the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other U.S. presidents combined. He also compares Manning's actions with that of another famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers in 1971.

MICHAEL RATNER: I was in court a few months ago when he pled guilty to a number of "lesser included charges" that could give him a maximum of 20 years in jail. The judge hadn't sentenced him yet and won't until the end of the trial, so he could obviously get lower than the 20 years, but he did plead guilty to charges that could get him 20 years in jail. It was one of the more moving days I've spent in a courtroom; he gave his political reasons, everything from the "collateral murder" video to the Iraq war logs. What's going on now is particularly nasty because I think the hopes may have been that if he pleaded guilty to 20 years the government would say, Okay, we're not going to go ahead with this huge trial with 150 witnesses; it's going to take three or four months, and includes some very heavy charges like aiding the enemy and espionage and could also get him life in prison, in fact, hundreds of years in prison. You would hope the government would come to their senses and say, this young man of conscience – no question he's a man of conscience, who did what he thought was right – pled guilty, and let the judge decide what sentence he should get up to 20 years. Instead, they're going for everything about him; they obviously want to put him in jail for the rest of his life. That's really sad and outrageous. They also want to get some precedents on the books, I think, about soldiers who whistleblow, give to the media, whether it's New York Times or WikiLeaks, and then are considered to be aiding the enemy by doing so.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What are the less serious charges that he did plead guilty to?

MICHAEL RATNER: The basic charges were around unauthorized access to computers or misuse of computers – lower charges that carry about two years, and when they all added up, it came to 20 years. The bigger charges now have to do with two charges: espionage, which has a very long sentence attached to it; and aiding the enemy, which has a death sentence attached to it, actually, although the U.S. has said they won't ask for the death penalty. We'll see what happens. So he's facing a very, very heavy time. There's going to be a lot of witnesses at the trial that are going to be secret witnesses. It's one of the more bizarre things of the trial: that all of the documents that you and I and every person listening to this show can look at online, that WikiLeaks put up online – all of those documents are considered secret still by the government, and so every time one of those documents comes up in court, the court closes the courtroom, kicks everybody out, and discusses them, even though we all know what's in them.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In Bradley Manning's case, is the government actually alleging that anybody was actually harmed or injured or killed as a result of anything he released?

MICHAEL RATNER: That's very important. Both with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning – and of course, Julian Assange from WikiLeaks published the documents. The initial spin by the administration is that they have blood on their hands, that people are going to be killed because of this, people who helped the U.S. in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, etc., are going to be injured. In fact, no evidence at all about anybody being injured, anybody having to move location, or anybody being killed as a result of these releases. What these releases are, is one, they are very embarrassing to the United States, but more so, they do reveal criminality by the U.S.: the killing of thousands of civilians – more than they acknowledged – in Iraq and Afghanistan, the collateral murder video, the secret wars in Yemen. The accountability that we ought to have here is not the accountability for what Bradley Manning did; it's the accountability of our own government for what it did, and what we ought to be focusing on is not Bradley Manning in terms of persecution, but we ought to be going after high officials of our own government who were involved in criminality.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I was in college when Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, and my recollection is that he wasn't vilified the way Bradley Manning has been. And I'm not sure he spent any time in jail. It just doesn't seem there's been widespread outrage at Bradley Manning's brutal treatment since his arrest and imprisonment three years ago. Nor has there been widespread outrage about all the secrecy and the persecution of both whistleblowers and journalists. Are we just living in different times? I think we're moving into an era of more activism. And we should mention that Ellsberg has been one of Manning's most outspoken supporters.

MICHAEL RATNER: What you're saying is very accurate. One difference of course is that when Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers – which were actually top secret – nothing that Bradley Manning released was higher level than secret. So what Ellsberg did, you could argue, at least from a government classification point of view, was much more capable of causing damage than what Bradley Manning did. But there was a huge anti-war movement at the time Daniel Ellsberg did it, so he was releasing those papers in a country that was tired of war, gotten lied to about Vietnam – this was 1970 or 1971 – so in that context he was looked at as a hero. He certainly was; he could have gone to jail. He was prosecuted for espionage; the trial ended badly for the government in the middle, but I think the political context was very different.

And yes, I think we're moving a bit in that direction, but we're not there yet. You know, I'd conclude by really two things. One is that the government ought to just back off at this point. I would hope this trial collapses in very short order, the government accepts the guilty plea of the 20 years that he pleaded to, and we go to a sentencing phase. That's the minimum I would hope for. The maximum, of course, I would hope that he gets released, gets time served and gets a medal on his chest, because that's what he deserves.

Find more perspectives on Manning’s trial by visiting the Center for Constitutional Rights at ccrjustice.org and the Bradley Manning Support Network at bradleymanning.org.

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