Every day, for the last seven months, I have had cause to reflect on the bravery of the whistleblower — Pfc. Bradley Manning, according to the US authorities — who, two years ago, released, to WikiLeaks, a trove of classified US documents — the “Collateral Murder” video, showing US soldiers killing civilians in Iraq in 2007, hundreds of thousands of pages of war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, over 250,000 diplomatic cables, whose selective release, beginning almost exactly a year ago, drove the news agenda globally for many weeks (and also see my reflections on what they revealed about Guantánamo and US torture), and the military files on the Guantánamo prisoners, released last April.
It is, of course, the Guantánamo files that have encouraged me to think every day about the whistleblower responsible for providing them to WikiLeaks, as we all owe a great debt to whoever it was who leaked them. I worked with WikILeaks as a media partner for the release of these documents, liaising with nine media organisations (including McClatchy, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais), and although their impact was overshadowed — rather conveniently, it seems — after just a week, when Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan, I have continued analyzing them ever since, creating a 70-part, million-word series, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” which will be complete by spring 2012.
The documents — Detainee Assessment briefs prepared by the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force at Guantánamo — profile all but three of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002, and provide details of what was ascertained about the prisoners, and who provided that information. The documents clarify that many prisoners were completely innocent, detained because the Bush administration arrogantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions, and its tried and tested methods for screening prisoners seized in wartime to make sure that civilians had not been swept up with soldiers.
They also reveal how, because of the Bush administration’s desire for actionable intelligence, the detention program was driven not by the universally accepted policy of keeping combatants off the battlefield until the duration of hostilities (or trying terror suspects in federal courts), but on the basis of exploiting them for their perceived intelligence, and regularly assessing both their intelligence value and their perceived risk through an alarmist classification process, in which even innocent people seized by mistake were judged to be a “low risk” rather than no risk at all.
Most importantly, however, the documents reveal the extent to which filling an experimental prison with prisoners largely rounded up randomly, or as a result of substantial bounties paid to America’s allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then attempting to establish reasons for holding them, led to a harrowing mixture of torture, coercion and bribery, in which prisoners falsely incriminated themselves, or were falsely, or dubiously incriminated in the statements of their fellow prisoners — who were not only held in Guantánamo, but also in secret prisons run by the CIA, where the use of torture was rife.
As a result, the Guantánamo files reveal how the entire intelligence program is a worthless house of cards built on torture and abuse, involving a handful of unreliable witnesses who turn up in the files over and over again, and, although a skeleton of this story was available before the files were publicly released, through other documents made available as a result of court cases, the release of the files made public by WikiLeaks adds hugely important detail to the stories, which, when viewed objectively, thoroughly destroys any rationale for Guantánamo that was conjured up by the Bush administration and that, sadly, has been maintained by far too many vengeful cheerleaders for torture and arbitrary detention in America’s most powerful institutions.
The abuse of Bradley Manning in US custody
In May last year, after the US government seized Bradley Manning, it soon became apparent that he was accused of leaking the “Collateral Murder” video, and on July 5, 2010, he was charged (PDF) with “transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system in connection with the leaking of a video of a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007,” and “communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source and disclosing classified information concerning the national defense with reason to believe that the information could cause injury to the United States.”
Since I first picked up on his story, I have followed it with great interest, initially because the video was picked up so widely, and because it was a high-profile release for WikiLeaks, but in the last seven months, of course, I have been thinking of Bradley Manning regularly, because, if it was he who leaked the Guantánamo files, then his actions have enabled me to undertake the most forensic deconstruction of Guantánamo in its lamentable 10-year history.
From what we know of his motivations, Manning was assigned to Iraq in October 2009, at the age of 20, but soon became (or had already become) thoroughly disillusioned with the militarism of the US, its brutal foreign policy and its cynical political maneuvering. With access to a huge database of classified information — which, ironically, was opened up to millions of US government employees after the breakdown of inter-agency communications that allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen — he decided that he had to leak some of the classified information he had access to so that it would lead to “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms,” because, if that did not happen, he was convinced that we were “doomed as a species.”
Since he was first seized and imprisoned in Kuwait in May last year, Bradley Manning has attracted widespread support, not just because of his determination to expose war crimes and injustice that the US government would prefer to keep hidden, but also because of his treatment by the military authorities, and by extention, by the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, President Obama.
Manning was moved to a military prison in Quantico, Virginia, in July last year, and it was from this prison that disturbing details began to emerge about his treatment, as I discussed, in particular, in my articles, Is Bradley Manning Being Held as Some Sort of “Enemy Combatant”?, Psychologists Protest the Torture of Bradley Manning to the Pentagon; Jeff Kaye Reports, and Former Quantico Commander Objects to Treatment of Bradley Manning, the Alleged WikiLeaks Whistleblower. Among the disturbing details to emerge was information about his chronic isolation, and about the enforced use of nudity to humiliate him, al of which provided uncomfortable echoes of the Bush administration’s torture program, as used in military brigs on the US mainland on two US citizens, Jose Padilla (who lost his mind as the result of his torture) and Yaser Hamdi, and US resident Ali al-Marri.
In March, when updated charges were filed against Manning, I wrote another article, Death Penalty for Bradley Manning, the Alleged WikiLeaks Whistleblower?, because the 22 charges included a capital offense — “aiding the enemy” — for which the government stated that it would not seek the death penalty, although, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it appeared that it would be up to the presiding judge to decide what charges to refer to court-martial and whether to impose the death penalty.
The charges were followed by further criticism of Obama’s position regarding Manning’s treatment. In April, for example, Professor Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, complained about the conditions of his confinement, along with over 300 other legal experts, as I explained in another article. Later that month, a former colleague of Manning’s provided a powerful defense of Manning, and of WikiLeaks, and finally, on April 20, Manning was moved to Fort Leavenworth where there was a marked improvement in his conditions. As the Guardian reported:
Under the old prevention order [a spurious “prevention of injury” order], Manning was forced to strip naked and wear just a smock at night, he had no bedding and was not permitted any personal items in his cell. He was kept locked up in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a windowless cell, and allowed only to walk in a yard on his own for that final hour.
In Fort Leavenworth, by contrast, he has a large window that lets in natural light. He has a normal mattress and bedding and his clothes are not removed at night. Manning can have personal objects in his cell, including books and letters from family and friends, as well as legal documents relating to his case. He can write whenever he wants.
His new life of detention is also considerably less lonely. There are five other pretrial prisoners and Manning spends much of the day in their company. His cell is connected to a common area used by four of the detainees with a television and exercise machine, table and shower area.
The Guardian also explained that the “improvement in Manning’s prison life is testament to the power of a sustained campaign by his supporters and politicians to end what was deemed virtual torture against him,” noting that the Pentagon “had been flooded with emails and lobbied by representatives such as Dennis Kucinich,” who took up his cause. The Democratic congressman from Ohio said that Manning’s improved conditions “can only be attributed to the public campaign that brought great pressure on the Department of Defense.”
Bradley Manning’s hearing
Now, seven months after he was moved to Fort Leavenworth, Manning has been told that he is to have a hearing — at Fort Meade in Maryland, on December 16, the day before his 24th birthday, which will be the start of what the Guardian described as “the most high-profile prosecution of a whistleblower in a generation.”
The hearing (an Article 32 hearing), which was announced by Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, is expected to last five days, and “will be the first opportunity for prosecuting officers and Manning’s defence team to present their cases.” Although it is only a preliminary hearing, “both sides will be able to call and cross-examine witnesses.” The Guardian noted that the standard of proof in an Article 32 hearing is “relatively low,” and that all the prosecution has to do is to present “sufficient evidence” to prove there is “reasonable cause to believe” that Manning committed the offences of which he is accused. If successful, “a recommendation will be made to a military general who will decide whether or not to proceed to a full trial.”
As the Guardian noted, although Manning has been “charged with multiple counts of obtaining and distributing state secrets to unauthorised parties” (in other words, to WikiLeaks), as well as being charged with “aiding the enemy,” he is “specifically accused of having handed more than 50 of about 150,000 secret US government cables to the whistleblowing website – offences that carry a possible sentence of up to 52 years.” His charge sheet also includes “16 counts of wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the internet knowing that it is accessible to the enemy; five counts of theft of public property or records, eight of transmitting defence information, two of fraud in connection with computers and five of violating army information security,” in the Guardian‘s words. It was also noted that, if he is convicted of all the charges, he “would face a maximum sentence of confinement for life.”
Supporters responded positively to the news. Jeff Paterson, a supporter involved with the Bradley Manning Support Network, said, “We will be protesting against the charges levelled at Bradley Manning. If he is proven to have been the WikiLeaks source, then to us Bradley is a hero: he’s the most important whistleblower in decades.”
In addition, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, who contributed greatly to discrediting the Vietnam War, said, “The charges against Bradley Manning are an indictment of our government’s obsession with secrecy. Manning is accused of revealing illegal activities by our government and its corporate partners that must be brought to the attention of the American people.”
The Guardian also noted that the “five counts of theft of public records” in the charges against Manning were submitted under the Espionage Act, the same law used, unsuccessfully, to prosecute Ellsberg. In further comments, Ellsberg said that “if Manning were found to be the source of the WikiLeaks documents, ‘he deserves our thanks and has my admiration. He is unreservedly a hero,’” and he added that “the WikiLeaks exposure of illegal war crimes by US forces in Iraq had been crucial to the decision of the Iraqi government to insist on legal jurisdiction over all American soldiers, which in turn forced the Obama administration to pull all remaining troops from the country.”
On Tuesday, as the Guardian reported, the Bradley Manning Support Network, which has “paid for the bulk of his legal fees so far,” stated that Manning’s defence team was “planning to call 50 witnesses” at the hearing, “promising to turn the proceedings into a detailed legal battle over the merits of the prosecution case against him.” The Guardian noted, “Many legal angles will be pursued, with witnesses ranging from experts on whistle blowing to IT specialists who can comment on technical details relating to Manning’s access to intelligence databases.”
The Guardian also explained that this strategy was unusual for defence teams in Article 32 proceedings, who normally “limit their engagement to a minimum, in order to withhold from the prosecution elements of their approach that could be crucial in any eventual trial.” Jeff Paterson explained that Coombs “intends to present a pretty vigorous defence on many different angles, which is how Bradley Manning himself envisioned being represented,” and told journalists and supporters on a conference call that Coombs “would call as many of the 50 witnesses he has identified as the army will allow,” adding that if he is “permitted to call all 50 — which is considered unlikely — the hearing will take much longer than the five days earmarked for it,” and “if he is not allowed to call many of the witnesses,” he “will release the entire list of names for the public to see.”
Whatever happens on December 16, Manning’s supporters will be making sure that the world hears about it, and about their conviction that he is a hero. The Bradley Manning Support Network plans to hold a rally outside the hearing at Fort Meade on December 16, followed by a march on December 17, Manning’s 24th birthday, and my thoughts will be with him.