Bradley Manning, the Army private who allegedly leaked classified information to WikiLeaks, starts his trial process today with an Article 32 hearing at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Under military law, this is essentially the equivalent of a preliminary hearing in the civilian justice system. Based on the hearing, the investigating officer will make a recommendation to the convening authority whether Manning should be sent to a general court martial for his actions that led to the worldwide disclosure of highly sensitive military reports and intelligence, as well as State Department cables. The convening authority will then make an independent decision whether to hold a court martial.
Already, the small group of Manning followers in liberal circles and in the media that his lawyers have been playing to are trying to build Manning up as some kind of hero. They want the public to believe that Manning has been mistreated by the government and will not receive a fair trial in the military justice system. But nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, Manning will receive a fair and impartial hearing, and he has virtually the same due process and constitutional rights as any criminal defendant being prosecuted in a federal court. He enjoys a presumption of innocence; he can cross examine all witnesses against him; he cannot be compelled to testify against himself; and at trial, military prosecutors must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
In fact, defendants in the military justice system actually have advantages that defendants in our civilian system do not, such as free defense counsel in all cases and automatic appeals. Even if he is convicted, Manning will have two levels of appellate courts that can consider his case before he even gets to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter for all criminal cases, whether in our federal courts or our military courts.
F. Lee Bailey, one of the most famous and well-know American lawyers of the 20th century (and a former Marine lawyer), once said that if he was innocent, he would rather be tried in a military court than a civilian court because of the fairness of the system, particularly the fact that he believed that politics did not infect military prosecutors the way it does civilian prosecutors.
Manning will also get something that no civilian defendant gets. Military judges are required to tell juries that good military character alone may be sufficient to acquit. That defense is routinely relied on by military defense attorneys to get their clients out from under prosecutions that would otherwise be successful because their clients committed the actions of which they are accused.
The assertions by Manning’s lawyer that his court martial has been unnecessarily delayed by the government is also untrue: The delays have been caused for the most part by the private’s lawyers. They have also claimed that they have been denied the witnesses they need to defend Manning at the Article 32 hearing. But the lawyers wanted to turn this espionage case into a political circus over America’s foreign and military policy by bringing in witnesses like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Those witnesses have no knowledge of the key issue that is at stake in this hearing: whether there is probable cause to believe that the accused committed the crimes charged.
Manning’s groupies have also complained about his treatment in prison. They charged that he was unlawfully kept in solitary confinement and poorly treated. But the Obama Administration investigated those claims and found there was no basis for them. Manning was put on a suicide watch because of the fear that he would commit suicide (he had a history of depression) and was kept apart from other prisoners because of the national security aspects of his case, a standard procedure in espionage cases. Defendants charged with espionage and disclosure of classified information are routinely kept away from other prisoners to prevent further possible disclosure of such information.
The private’s followers have also tried to paint him as some type of martyr who did a noble deed when he publicized thousands of pages of classified information. I doubt that the families of those who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of his actions would agree. The AP reported in 2010 on complaints by human rights groups, including the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), that the information sent by Manning to WikiLeaks disclosed the names of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who were helping allied forces. The head of the AIHRC noted a rise in assassinations of Afghan civilians who were seen as collaborators. The same thing happened with the State Department cables that disclosed the names of sources for American diplomats, many of whom even The New York Times reported were forced “to hide or flee to avoid retaliation from repressive governments.”
Apparently, Manning also provided WikiLeaks with Guantanamo interrogation logs that had information about the couriers used by Osama bin Laden, the couriers that led American intelligence experts to his location in Pakistan. If those logs had been read by the al-Qaeda organization on a timely basis, bin Laden might have moved and our special forces team would have missed him.
If Manning is proven to be the source of the leaks, then he is no hero—he is an irresponsible and reckless individual who violated his solemn obligation as a member of the American military to protect and defend his country. These actions led to incalculable damage to our foreign policy and our military operations, and it is highly likely that they resulted in the murder and assassination of individuals who were trying to help the U.S. stop brutal, murderous terrorists. Given the severity of his actions and their consequences, the Obama Administration would have been justified in seeking the death penalty.