Supporters of Pfc. Bradley Manning say recent comments by President Obama have already prejudiced the trial against the 23-year-old accused of leaking classified documents.
Obama’s remarks at a fundraiser in San Francisco late last month were interrupted when a woman protesting Manning’s confinement broke into song. Later, a handheld video captured Obama answering some questions off the cuff about Manning, who is suspected of giving WikiLeaks thousands of classified military documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a quarter-million State Department documents. "I can't conduct diplomacy on an open source,” Obama told an unidentified questioner. “...If I release stuff, and I'm not authorized to release it, I'm breaking the law."
“We're a nation of laws. We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate," Obama continued. "...He broke the law."
It is “grossly improper” for the military’s commander in chief to allege that Manning broke the law ahead of a trial, said Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg during a conference call on Wednesday hosted by the Bradley Manning Support Network. Ellsberg said that his own charges were dismissed due to disclosure of “gross governmental misconduct” against him—and similarly, he says Obama’s statement is clear-cut grounds to move for a mistrial in Manning's case. The case should be moved to the Department of Justice, where again, Ellsberg said the question of Obama’s statement "that a law has been broken" should be investigated.
Ellsberg, who famously leaked thousands of documents comprising the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War in 1971, said there are clear similarities between the two cases: “I was the Bradley Manning of my day,” he said. But he also said the WikiLeaks disclosures were at a “much lower level of classification” than the documents he himself released.
In the same video from San Francisco, Obama denied the similarity between Manning and Ellsberg, who is often praised for his role in helping build public sentiment for the end of the Vietnam war: “[Manning] dumped... no, it wasn’t the same thing. What Ellsberg released wasn’t classified the same way.”
The documents released were “only secret,” not “top secret,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said on the conference call. This is an important difference in classification that Obama "deliberately used and misleadingly used to imply that the difference was the other way,” Assange said, to imply the release of sensitive documents was "more severe when... in truth it was less severe.”
The Army in March charged Manning with dozens of additional offenses related to the release of classified documents to WikiLeaks, including "aiding the enemy," traditionally a capital offense—though the Army said it would not be recommending the death penalty. Manning was also charged with wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, where it could be accessed by "the enemy"; theft of public records; transmitting defense information; and fraud in connection with computers.
Manning, who was arrested one year ago Thursday, had been held during the military's months-long investigation in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps Base brig at Quantico, Va., where human-rights groups have criticized what they call his inappropriate treatment. Late last month, Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, the military’s only maximum-security prison, where Pentagon officials said more extensive support would be available to him.
Kevin Zeese, an attorney with the Bradley Manning Support Network, said Manning’s confinement in the new prison has been much more amenable. Manning is in a “quad” shared with three other inmates, where he has his own individual cell and a common area. He’s allowed three hours of exercise a day with one hour outside and eats his meals with the rest of the prison population.
The conditions of Manning's previous confinement—which were denounced by Amnesty International as "unnecessarily severe and amount[ing] to inhumane treatment"—are likely to be used in trial proceedings to bolster the defense's case for governmental misconduct. Manning’s original confinement at Quantico was like using “a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” Assange said.
Manning's pretrial hearing will be held midsummer at Fort Belvoir, Va., and will most likely be a multiweek hearing in which Manning will be formally charged, Zeese said. The trial is expected to start in late fall and should be open to the public and media—though Zeese added the government may close some portion of the trial, claiming that national security interests are at stake.