After 1,007 days in jail, Private First Class Bradley Manning, the 25-year-old soldier accused of leaking classified material to Wikileaks, appeared in military court at Fort Meade today to plead guilty to modified versions of some of the more minor charges against him.
Specifically, Manning admitted to leaking State Department cables, video that appears to show the killing of civilians by a helicopter gunship in Iraq, and the secret assessment files of Guantanamo detainees.
But Manning maintained his not-guilty plea to the most significant charges, including “aiding the enemy.” He told the court he chose the leaked material because he believed that while it would be embarrassing for the United States government and might provoke policy changes, he “was absolutely sure [they] wouldn’t cause harm to the United States”
Manning was allowed to read a 35-page statement to the court, in which he said that nobody from Wikileaks pressured him to leak the materials. In fact, before he turned to Wikileaks, he tried to interest press outlets including the New York Times, Reuters, the Washington Post, and Politico.
The court is in recess, but when it reconvenes this afternoon Judge Denise Lind will question Manning and determine whether to accept his guilty plea. If she doesn’t, prosecutors can still pursue all of their initial charges — charges which, at maximum, could theoretically carry the death penalty, though prosecutors are (only!) seeking life in prison. If the judge accepts Manning’s guilty pleas to diminished versions of the more minor charges, he could face a maximum 20 years in prison.
Manning’s lengthy pre-trial detention and treatment in prison that the United Nations determined to be torture speak to a larger federal assault on whistleblowers, leakers, and transparency activists.
Julian Assange, a leading figure in Wikileaks and the recipient of Manning’s alleged leak, is himself the subject of a grand jury inquiry in Virginia, and has spent the last eight months inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London avoiding extradition to Sweden.
Before he killed himself last month, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz was facing 50 years in prison over charges that he intended to distribute for free academic articles currently hoarded behind a paywall by the digital library JSTOR. Why was the United States Attorney hell-bent on sending Swartz away for so long? According to congressional staffers who sat in on a presentation by Justice Department officials last week, it’s because Swartz had written a manifesto explicitly exhorting people to fight the privatization of knowledge, and, “in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.”
Meanwhile, another criminal defendant, Jeremy Hammond, is facing upwards of 30 years in prison over charges he hacked into the corporate intelligence company Stratfor.
As we wrote last week from his trial, Hammond’s judge is married to someone whose information was released in the hack, and whose law firm represents numerous companies affected by it. Even so, the judge, Loretta Preska, denied a motion asking her to recuse herself from the case.
But despite the significance of Manning’s case, coverage of the trial by the mainstream media has been scant. Independent journalists like Alexa O’Brien and Kevin Gosztola have provided excellent ongoing coverage, but the New York Times — which partnered with Wikileaks to publish the materials leaked by Manning — didn’t bother to send a reporter to cover the trial until chastised by the paper’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan.
As Alexa O’Brien tweeted from inside the courtroom this morning, the Manning trial “in one regard is a trial of established American media. How it will be remembered. Mark my words.”
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