Hero or traitor, Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents and video of U.S. helicopter gunships killing civilians in Baghdad, is still waiting for his court-martial – more than 900 days after the fresh-faced private was arrested in Iraq.
At pretrial hearings this week in Ft. Meade, Md., a military court heard about the harsh conditions in which Private Manning was held after his arrest, first in Kuwait and later on U.S. military bases. He had been designated a suicide risk and kept in solitary, forced to sleep naked without covers, and put in maximum custody at the U.S. Marine brig in Quantico, Va.
His backers say the conditions were designed to break, not protect, the young soldier. Pte. Manning has admitted that he fashioned a noose out of peach-colored sheets. At one point, he choked up, testifying in court that he didn't tell anyone about the conditions because, "I didn't want my family to be worried."
His band of supporters extol Pte. Manning as noble whistle blower. Others regard him as a misguided and gullible young Army soldier armed with a dangerously wide-ranging security clearance and access to digital archives containing military and State Department documents. Pentagon prosecutors want him put behind bars for "aiding the enemy" – in this case, al-Qaeda – a conviction that could end with a hanging, although prosecutors have said they would not seek the death penalty.
But Pte. Manning is also a pawn in a bigger game. In it, the real target is not the young soldier deployed to Iraq, but Julian Assange – the fugitive Australian now holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London – whose Wikileaks website published the material Pte. Manning is accused of stealing.
As Pte. Manning's trial date was pushed back again last week (this time to March, 2013) there came hints of a deal – a plea bargain – that could result in his release after years, not decades.
Both sides are manoeuvring. The defence wants the trial scrapped, claiming Pte. Manning was so ill-treated that the charges should be dismissed. Prosecutors seek the bigger prize of turning the soldier into a witness to help nail Mr. Assange, if the Wikileaks founder can be pried from the London embassy and somehow extradited to the United States.
The pretrial hearings may set the stage for a dramatic and higher-stakes conclusion. While Col. Denise Lind, the military judge in the court martial, could toss out all 22 charges, some legal analysts expect her to apply a multiplier to the time already served by Pte. Manning and deduct it from whatever sentence he receives if convicted. Since April, 2011, he has been deemed a medium security prisoner and held among the general population in the military prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Bigger issues, including freedom of the press and whether to make government documents public – as opposed to the more traditional notion of aiding the enemy as secretly sending classified material to an adversary – also surround the case.
In a public appearance at a church in Washington earlier this week, where the growing band of Manning supporters were out in force, the soldier's defence lawyer, David Coombs, posed the case in Kafkaesque terms. "If you can possibly aid the enemy by giving information to the press, with no intent that that information land in the hands of the enemy, and by that mere action alone you can have been found to have aided the enemy, that's a scary proposition," he said.
Daniel Ellsberg, who infamously leaked the 1971 Pentagon Papers – defence documents detailing how senior U.S. officials publicly lied about the Vietnam War – has called Pte. Manning a hero. Now 81, Mr. Ellsberg represents the last time the United States was confronted with such a divisive issue of national security versus freedom of the press.
"History has judged [Ellsberg] well" for his "courage and sacrifice," Mr. Coombs said. "I hope that history will judge Private First Class Bradley Manning in a similar light."
So far, not so much. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked, it was to The New York Times by a senior civilian analyst working for the Rand Corporation. In the Manning case, a serving junior soldier is accused of giving material to a digital entity that apparently exists only in cyberspace, and whose prime mover is an accused sexual offender on the run.
As for Pte. Manning's case, the nation's commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama has already said publicly – more than two years before the trial is due to start – of the young soldier: "He broke the law." And Mr. Obama, whose only anti-war stand, over Iraq, was prominent in his first run for the White House, left no doubt that he rejected comparisons between Pte. Manning and Mr. Ellsberg.
"It wasn't the same thing," Mr. Obama said, in April, 2011. "What Ellsberg released wasn't classified in the same way."