Bradley Manning Trial: Questioning Why So Much Is Classified

The Army private wants to know why so much is kept secret in the first place.

Cliff Owen / AP Photo

The decision by Army investigators to strictly limit the witnesses Bradley Manning is allowed to call in his own defense has shrunk the scope of his pretrial investigative hearing on charges of aiding WikiLeaks. By truncating the conversation, the state has robbed the public of a unique opportunity to learn about the secrecy system operating in its name and on its dime.

On the first day of proceedings, David Coombs, lead attorney for Manning, the 24-year-old Army private on trial for several charges including aiding the enemy, made a vociferous display of his displeasure at the decision while lawyers for the government sat by contented. The divide stems from a fundamental disagreement on what Manning’s case is about. Former State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley gave voice to the prevailing position on Twitter. “The essence of the #BradleyManning case is, if every soldier gets a vote on national security policy, the military ceases to function,” he tweeted. The government sees the case’s central question as fairly simple: did an Army private leak a massive trove of classified information?

Manning’s defense team would like to use his Article 32—the pretrial investigation to determine whether or not to court-martial him—to discuss a much wider range of issues. “Let’s get these witnesses up here to discuss ‘Why is this information classified?’” said Coombs in his opening statement.

On the second day of proceedings, Coombs cross-examined Capt. Steven Lim, an officer in Manning’s intelligence unit during part of his Iraq deployment, and used the opportunity to draw out military secrecy issues.

“Do SIGACTS (Significant Activity reports—Army jargon for the documents contained in the Iraq and Afghan war logs) contain the names of key sources of people working with the government?”

“No sir,” responded Lim.

“Would a SIGACT, if it was released, compromise our key sources?”

“No sir.”

“So if someone said the SIGACT release would compromise our key sources that would not be a true statement.”

“No sir.”

By questioning an array of witnesses, from soldiers who served with Manning to senior government officials—including, it seems, the president of the United States—Coombs had hoped to explore the context in which Manning’s massive alleged leak occurred.

Study after study (after study) suggests that state secrecy in the United States is out of control, having reached levels incompatible over the long term with democratic government. But the case of Bradley Manning reveals a more pressing danger emanating from behind the classified curtain. Excessive secrecy and the need to share information across agencies (as well as with the growing “industrial” sector of the military complex) have merged in the last decade into a dysfunctional behemoth, making leaks not only more likely but necessary.

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As revealed by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their groundbreaking report in The Washington Post, the national-security establishment has grown unrecognizably immense in recent years. Within this community, supposed secrets are hoarded by bureaucrats and dispensed to the media and the public at the whim of officials. As the late, and indeed great, Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2005, “All worthwhile information in Washington is ‘classified’ one way or another.” The functioning of our republic has come to depend upon government that leaks “secrets” like radioactive uranium spins off electrons. Excessive secrecy and the countervailing need to share information only exacerbate and complicate the situation.

The primary difference then between Manning and the many officials who dispense tidbits of info nuggets to the nation’s press corps every day is one of scale and context. Manning’s alleged leak was enormous—far bigger than anything before—and, if he is guilty, perpetrated by a low-level soldier in Iraq rather than a high-ranking bureaucrat in Washington. The contents of the leaks, the size of the data spillage, and the damage done or not done to national security is in every sense the reason for his prosecution. By forbidding Manning’s defense from calling witnesses to testify to this side of the issue the Army investigation is either willfully or negligently thwarting the examination of an issue central to his case.

The gravity of Manning’s legal proceeding makes it the right venue for a public discussion of why what he allegedly leaked demanded to be secret, and on what in particular made it so damaging to national security. Rarely if ever again will we have such an opportunity, where the classified information in question is already a matter of public record, for a frank and open discussion about the national-security state. It may be that Bradley Manning put lives in danger and did “serious injury to the national interest.” But if he did, the state should prove it in open court amid a candid discussion about what is secret and why. In the doing, the American public would get a rare look into what, precisely, their government hides from them in order to keep them safe.