Manning trial begins: Here's what you need to know

As the court-martial begins, government attempts to charge him with espionage, aiding the enemy will be revealing

Published June 3, 2013 1:24PM (EDT)

After more than 1,100 days in pre-trial detention, held for many months in torturous conditions, Pfc. Bradley Manning Monday finally begins his court-martial hearing. As protests and rallies around the world this past weekend indicate, more is at stake in this historic case than whether one young private is sentenced to life in prison.

Manning's military court battle -- in which he has already admitted to passing hundreds of thousands of U.S. intelligence documents to WikiLeaks for publication -- is synecdochic of struggles defining this epoque of U.S. political and military ideology. He, more than any other individual, has become representative of the government's war on leaks and fierce battle to control the narrative about government and military activity. Manning, too, as a detainee at Quantico, came to represent (alongside Guantánamo prisoners) the U.S.'s troubling practice of holding individuals in a legal state of exception, without recourse to the processes and treatment purportedly afforded U.S. prisoners. Above all, the government's contention that Manning's actions constitute "aiding the enemy" -- the most severe charge he faces at trial -- illustrate with troubling clarity what it means to be considered a possible enemy of the state, revealing, as Manning did, the grimy underbelly of the U.S. war on terror.

Whether military Judge Army Col. Denise Lind rules that Manning aided the enemy and wittingly put American lives at risk is the central issue for the 25-year-old whistle-blower, who, during a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, stressed in a 35-page statement that he leaked select documents only to reveal U.S. Army wrongdoing and never knowingly aided al-Qaida or any affiliates. But the judge's decision is only one aspect of the Manning saga in the context of the government's war on whistle-blowers.

Crucially, government prosecutors have already framed Manning's leak -- which brought to light information such as footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter firing on civilians in New Baghdad in 2007 -- as an attack on the U.S. itself. Manning has been brutally treated as a prisoner of war. As Gary Younge commented in the Guardian, "If the leaks laid bare the hypocritical claim that the U.S. was exporting democracy, then the nature of his incarceration and prosecution illustrate the fallacy of its insistence that it is protecting both freedom and security at home."

Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, does not give Manning a free pass. She told Salon that the release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents suggests that the soldier could not have read all the information he leaked, and thus acted recklessly. "I’m not sure that I wouldn’t prosecute him," she said, "but I don’t think I’d prosecute someone like that under the Espionage Act. He’s not a spy, he wasn’t trying to harm national security. It’s just inappropriate to put that man in jail for life." Manning faces 20 years in jail for what he has already admitted; if found guilty too of espionage and "aiding the enemy," which he denies, he faces life in prison without parole. And therein lies the rub: Whether one fully support's Manning's actions or not, his case betrays a troubling state logic -- an enemy of the U.S. is one who reveals the truth about its operations.

And as the Government Accountability Project's Jesselyn Raddack, herself a DOJ whistle-blower and attorney to whistle-blowers, has noted, Manning's trial has worrying implications for the future of national security reporting. "If Osama bin Laden or any other suspected terrorist happens to have read a New York Times article on the Internet, the government can now go after the paper for 'aiding the enemy'. That's a big problem," she said. For this reason, Judge Lind's decision on the aiding the enemy charge is all important; the government's levying of the charge in the first place is already troubling.

Manning's ordeal is far from over. As Ed Pilkington noted, the "government has set aside almost three months, with the court sitting from Monday to Friday, with occasional breaks forced by a furlough on civilian defense employees as a result of federal budget cuts. The exceptional length of the trial is explained by the fact that the prosecution has indicated it intends to call more than 140 witnesses in an attempt to secure a watertight conviction. The prosecution will unveil its witness list in batches of 25 as the trial proceeds." Since the whistle-blower has already pleaded to lesser charges, a guilty verdict is expected at the end of the lengthy proceeding. Whether the private is found guilty of espionage and aiding the enemy in particular is all important.

Crucially, groups like the the Center For Constitutional Rights and the newly founded Freedom of the Press Foundation are pushing for details, documents and transcripts from the secretive court-martial to be made public. Close attention must be paid to the ways in which the government attempts to frame Manning as both a spy and an aid to the enemy: Through such arguments -- through cases like Manning's -- the U.S. government reveals its internal logic and priorities; it's doubtful we'll like what we see.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Aiding The Enemy Army Col. Denise Lind Bradley Manning Court Martial Fort Meade Quantico Wikileaks