Bradley Manning Awaits Army’s Decision on Whether to Court-Martial Him

His pretrial hearing over, Bradley Manning awaits the Army’s decision on whether to court-martial him.

Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images

The pretrial hearing for Bradley Manning ended in a packed courtroom at Fort Meade with dramatic closing arguments Thursday morning, including a strong case from the prosecution with shocking, newly public chat logs between Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, the defense questioned what it called the government’s overreaction and called for a reduction of the charges Manning faces.

Manning’s lead attorney, David Coombs, opened the morning by directly addressing Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the officer presiding over the hearing, to determine if Private Manning will be court-martialed and, if so, on what charges. “You’re in a unique position here,” Coombs said, to give the United States government “something the United States government needs: a reality check.” Coombs asked the investigating officer presiding to reduce Manning’s 22 charges to three and to remove his most serious charge, aiding the enemy.

Coombs asserted that the United States has overreacted. “The government has overcharged in this case,” he said, “to strong-arm a plea from my client.” The maximum sentence for all but one of Manning’s charges adds up to 150 years—aiding the enemy carries a maximum penalty of death or life without the possibility of parole.

Coombs described Manning’s long struggle with his gender identity, reading from an email Manning sent to a superior officer weeks before his arrest. His gender crisis, Manning wrote, “makes my entire life feel like a bad dream that won’t end ... Everyone’s concerned about me, and everyone’s afraid of me. And I’m sorry,” he wrote. Coombs denounced Manning’s superiors for failing to respond to his client’s pleas for help. “It is the unit’s lack of response to that which also smacks in the face of justice,” he said.

The attorney went on to question the damage done by the documents’ release. “What was the result of these leaks?” he asked, adding “it would have been nice” if the original classifying authorities and the officials who claimed such harm had been done had testified, an allusion to the decision to deny Coombs most of the witnesses he requested. “They are reinforcing the Chicken Little response from the U.S. military,” he said.

But in the end, Coombs insisted, the leak hurt no one. “It hasn’t caused harm. If anything it has helped,” he said. “The sky is not falling. The sky is not falling. And the sky will not fall.” Coombs highlighted Manning’s youth and idealism. “In your early 20s you believe you can change the world,” he said. “In your early 20s you believe. When the president of the United States says ‘Yes, we can,’ you believe that.”

Coombs closed his oratory with a soaring appeal to conscience. “An individual who breaks a law and they do so because the law is unjust, and they risk jail to arouse the public,” Coombs said, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “they’re really expressing the very highest respect for the law.” Coombs ended by quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

In a fast-paced presentation aided by PowerPoint, Capt. Ashden Fein, lead attorney representing the government, methodically laid out its case against Private Manning. Fein described Manning as a trusted and well-trained soldier who betrayed his country. “He used that training to defy our trust, to indiscriminately and systematically harm the United States.”

The prosecution went through the evidence it had presented throughout the trial, illustrating step by step how, it says, Manning used his working hours in Iraq to download immense amounts of classified information, which he then transferred to his personal computer and uploaded to WikiLeaks. Fein hammered on Manning’s betrayal, noting that he signed six nondisclosure agreements. Using a PowerPoint presentation on operational security that Manning himself had created as a student at Army intelligence school, Fein laid out the multiple dangers posed by spilling classified information.

In a dramatic turn, the prosecution showed chat logs of conversations between two people it asserted (with forensic evidence) were Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, allowing the logs to flash briefly on a screen for the benefit of the gallery.

“Anyway, I’m throwing everything I’ve got on JTF Gitmo at you know. Should take a while to get up though,” said the user “Nobody,” presumed to be Manning.

“OK, great,” said “Nathaniel Frank,” alleged to be Julian Assange.

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“Upload is at about 36 PCT.”

“ETA?” asked Assange.

“Eleven to twelve hours I’m guessing since it’s been going six already.”

The government also presented chats in which Assange appears to offer assistance to Manning in cracking a logon password to allow him to search anonymously on a computer.

“Any good at LM hash cracking?” asked Manning.

“Yes,” said Assange. “We have rainbow tables for LM.”

[Note: Chat logs appeared only briefly on a screen and remain, like other evidence and filings in the military proceeding, unreleased to the public. Logs as they appear in this and other articles are the result of collaborative note taking by journalists in the courtroom and those watching proceedings via live feed.]

Fein closed his statement with a video statement from Adam Gadahn, also known as Azzam al-Amriki, an American-born al Qaeda spokesperson, discussing the Collateral Murder video and the State Department cables Manning stands accused of leaking. Fein also alluded to evidence that an enemy of the United States has, “or had,” the CIDNE Afghanistan database Manning allegedly leaked, known to most of the world as the raw material of WikiLeaks’s Afghan War Diary.

“This information,” Fein said, “is accessible to all enemies of the United States with Internet access.” Fein insisted that Manning had received the training to know better than to leak classified information. “He used that training to betray our trust,” he said.

The investigating officer who presided over the hearing was Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, an officer in the Army reserve and a Department of Justice attorney until days before the hearing began. Almanza has a nonbinding deadline of Jan. 16 to issue his report announcing what charges, if any, will be brought against Manning in a court martial.