Last week during his pretrial hearing at Fort Meade, Pfc. Bradley Manning offered a guilty plea to a number of lesser charges including being the source of leaks to Wikileaks of state secrets. The government had the option of settling for the 10 charges to which Manning had pled guilty and proceeding directly to sentencing, but the prosecutors have instead indicated that they will proceed with a full court martial, bringing the most serious charges against the soldier — including “aiding the enemy,” which could carry a life sentence without parole.
“Given the scope of the alleged misconduct, the seriousness of the charged offenses, and the evidence and testimony available, the United States intends to proceed with the court-martial to prove Manning committed the charged offenses beyond the lesser charges to which he has already pled guilty,” said a statement from the military district.
As the Guardian’s Ed Pilkington pointed out, “It will be the sixth time the Espionage Act has been unleashed against the source of an official leak of classified information under the Obama administration – more than the total number of times it has been deployed under all previous presidents since it was enacted in 1917.”
The government’s decision has amplified criticism from Manning’s supporters and human rights advocates that the soldier’s treatment is politically motivated. “From day one the prosecution had the option to prosecute Bradley easily for the charge’s he’s admitted to now. If they push on with the Espionage Act it’s because they want to send a political message that what Bradley did will not be tolerated,” Jeff Patterson, of the Bradley Manning support network told the Guardian.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale, told the New York Times that “[the prosecutors] want to scare the daylights out of other people.”
The prosecution plans to call 141 witnesses, including “John Doe”, understood to be a Navy Seal who was part of the team that raided Osama bin Laden’s compound. The government has said that some of the documents that Manning gave to WikiLeaks ended up in the hands of bin Laden, and that this could be used as proof for the grave “aiding the enemy charge.” Manning’s attorney has countered in pretrial arguments that Bin Laden obtaining the material is not relevant, since Manning did not knowingly pass the information to an enemy.
As Pilkington wrote, “The invocation of the ‘enemy’ in the Manning trial has potentially huge ramifications for press freedom in the U.S… The charge in theory casts a prosecutorial net around any leak of official classified information that ends up on the internet, implying that as it could be accessed by al-Qaida it is therefore aiding the terrorist network.”