As Bradley Manning’s case moves a step closer to a court martial, the soldier accused of the largest intelligence breach in American history is still struggling to mount a defense.
The officer who presided over the soldier’s pre-trial hearing issued arecommendation Thursday that he face a court martial on all 22 charges brought against him for turning state secrets over to WikiLeaks. Manning’s litany of charges includes theft, fraud, violations of Army information security regulations, and aiding the enemy. If convicted on the latter charge, he could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The officer’s recommendation will now make its way up the chain of command. A final decision on if and when to court martial Manning is expected within weeks.
Defense attorney David Coombs answered the news with an official request to depose six witnesses who can answer questions regarding the classification decisions made on the information Manning is alleged to have leaked.
Since before Manning’s mid-December Article 32, the military’s pretrial investigation similar to a grand jury, Coombs has sought to challenge the claim that the leaks harmed national security. But of the 48 witnesses the defense requested for the hearing—a list that included Robert Gates and Barack Obama—the Army officer in charge allowed only 12, 10 of whom were also requested by the prosecution.
In Coombs’s latest request, the names of those he asks to depose are blacked out; some will give testimony that includes classified information. But descriptions of what he hopes to get from them reveal that the request is yet another attempt to question the classification system and the harm done, or not done, to national security.
Coombs is seeking the testimony of a person who conducted a classification review of three Apache gun videos, one of which, presumably, is the grainy video that became “Collateral Murder." “He will testify that the videos were not classified at the time of their alleged release,” says the court filing. Others, according to the document, would testify regarding the classification levels of the numerous other secrets Manning is accused of leaking. These include the reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq Combined Information Data Network Exchange, documents now known as the Iraq and Afghan War Logs, the leaked video of the Granai airstrike, in which scores of civilians were killed in one of the worst incidents of the Afghan war, and records taken from the Net-Centric Diplomacy database, now widely known as Cablegate.
Thus far, the military justice system has taken the uncompromising position that testimony specifically concerning classification decisions and challenging the assumption of harm done by the leaks is not relevant to the case. At the outset of the Article 32 hearing, Coombs called on the presiding officer to step down after he refused to admit the vast majority of the defense’s witnesses. The officer stated that he did not need their testimony in order to make a decision on whether or not to court martial Manning; he declined to step down, and has now passed on his recommendation to the convening authority.
With his less-ambitious list of six witnesses, down from the 36 he was denied at the hearing, Coombs may have better success at posing the bigger-picture questions regarding state secrecy in the court martial that is almost sure to come in the months ahead.