Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
The trial of the man who gave U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks and exposed secret U.S. foreign policy dealings began yesterday at Fort Meade in Maryland. It’s been a long time coming for Bradley Manning.
His saga started when WikiLeaks garnered attention for publishing a video in April 2010 titled “Collateral Murder,” which showed a U.S. Apache helicopter opening fire on Iraqi civilians, including employees of the news organization Reuters. Manning was arrested a month later, but not before he handed off thousands more classified cables to WikiLeaks, which released them over the year. The biggest WikiLeaks disclosure came in November 2010, when thousands of State Department cables were exposed and major news organizations collaborated with the whistleblowing group by publishing articles on the revelations in the diplomatic documents.
Manning was held in a military prison in Kuwait, and then transferred to a Marine Corps base in Virginia, where he endured abusive treatment from his guards.
It’s been three long years for Manning. And today, he begins to face 22 charges the military is prosecuting him for. The trial is set to last for about 12 weeks.
Here are 5 important aspects of the Bradley Manning trial you should know.
1. Implications for the Press
Manning was a source for WikiLeaks, which some have argued functions as a news organization. Regardless of whether WikiLeaks is a legitimate media outlet, the whistleblowing website did fuel major media outlets’ coverage for months and months. And the Manning trial has important implications for how the press does its job.
The most serious charge Manning is facing is “aiding the enemy,” which could put Manning in jail for life. The military’s argument is that Manning, in putting classified documents on the web, aided Al-Qaeda’s operations. The military is set to present evidence they say shows that Osama bin Laden requested access to WikiLeaks cables.
Press freedom advocates have decried the “aiding the enemy” charge and warn that it could set a dangerous precedent. The reason? If Manning is successfully prosecuted for “aiding the enemy” by putting documents on the web for anyone to see – including Al Qaeda – then the New York Times could be as well.
“If Osama bin Laden or any other suspected terrorist happens to have read a New York Times article on the internet, the government can now go after the paper for ‘aiding the enemy’. That’s a big problem,” Jesselyn Radack, National Security & Human Rights Director of the Government Accountability Project, told The Guardian.
2. Manning is a Symbol of Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
What has come to be known as the Obama administration’s “war on whistleblowers” has attracted large attention in recent weeks due to disclosures that the Justice Department has been investigating people they suspect of leaking to the press. Less talked about is that Manning could be considered the poster boy for the government’s extreme measures in going after whistleblowers.
Manning is the ultimate whistleblower. He exposed nefarious dealings in U.S. foreign policy and the perpetration of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
3. Manning is Charged Under the Espionage Act
The centerpiece of the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers has been the use of the 1917 Espionage Act, a law that “makes it a crime to hurt the United States or benefit a foreign country by collecting or communicating information that would harm the national defense,” as Emily Peterson of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explained.
Manning is not the only whistleblower to be charged under the act. In fact, 6 people have been charged by the Obama administration for violating this act – an unprecedented number. Press advocates say that the use of the law to charge whistleblowers has chilled the practice of investigative journalism and deterred leakers from divulging information to keep government accountable and honest.
4. The Manning Trial is Shrouded in Secrecy
There’s a lot of attention being paid to this trial, but the government wants to keep it as secret as possible. That fact is yet another example of the Obama administration’s lack of transparency on national security issues.
The military court-martial trial will be kept as opaque as possible. The press or public won’t be present because the government argues classified information will be discussed, though the whole world knows what WikiLeaks revealed.
A lawsuit filed by attorneys and journalists is challenging this secrecy. They want the government to open access to the trial and provide the public with access to government filings and court transcripts. A similar lawsuit was filed in the military courts last May, but the plaintiffs lost.
“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country. The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act,” said Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman in a statement published by the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Access to court documents and proceedings in the court martial of Bradley Manning is vital to the public’s right to know to what lengths their government will go to keep secret their conduct of wars and occupations abroad.”
5. The Trial Exposes America’s Double-Standards in Justice
Perhaps the most galling part of the Manning trial is what it exposes about the U.S. justice system at large. Manning is being put on trial for exposing war crimes that occurred during the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, those who were responsible for those crimes roam free, living the high life of being a former U.S. government official. As The Guardian’s Gary Younge put it, this trial is “about wars in which the resistance to, and exposure of, crimes and abuses has been criminalised while the criminals and abusers go free. If Manning is an enemy of the state then so too is truth.”