Manning trial testimonies point to over-classification problem

Defense attorney questions to Manning's military supervisors point to problem of mass document over-classification

Published June 6, 2013 1:59PM (EDT)

Among the witnesses to testify in this first week of Pfc. Bradley Manning's court martial were the whistleblower's former military supervisors. Manning's lawyer attempted to illustrate that the young soldier was given unfettered access to a sprawling array of documents -- all classified -- rendering the designation "classified" close to weightless in the eyes of the military analyst.

The Guardian's Ed Pilkington reported from Fort Meade:

The prosecution attempted to depict his unit within the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division as meticulously trained in the handling and safeguarding of classified information.

By contrast, the defence team led by civilian lawyer David Coombs extracted answers from prosecution witnesses under cross-examination that presented the unit as an ill-disciplined group that operated under lapse security guidelines, even though they were stationed on active duty at a U.S. military base outside Baghdad.

... Under cross-examination, [Manning's supervisor] Showman said that she was unable to recall any official stipulation of areas of the secure network of US official secrets – known as Siprnet – that intelligence analysts were barred from entering. There was no training provided on the restrictions of Siprnet.

The testimony highlights an important feature underpinning the government's war on whistleblowers -- that of over-classification of documents. If millions of documents are over-classified as secret, the designation carries little meaning -- little wonder that government or military whistleblowers are willing to leak classified documents, when all too much is classified. As Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told me:

In some of the cases that we’re seeing, the information that’s been leaked was information that shouldn’t have been classified in the first place; this information that reveals government wrongdoing, and that’s not the information that’s supposed to be classified under the operative executive order... When so much information is overclassified, people who are dealing with this information day in and day out start to notice that the classification stamp doesn't really mean anything, and they lose respect for it.

Meanwhile, Adrian Lamo -- the former hacker who turned Manning into the authorities -- gave evidence Tuesday. Lamo has publicly in the past explained his actions as motivated by fear that Manning's leaks could put lives at risk. Manning had confided with Lamo on a deeply personal level over online chats. Lamo's testimony seemed poised to aid the government in its argument that the whistleblower "aided the enemy." However, during cross examination by Manning's lawyer David Coombs, Lamo answered in the positive to all questions that suggested Manning was well-intentioned in his attempts to make the truth about U.S. military wrongdoing public. Via the Guardian:

"At one point you asked what his end game was," Coombs said.

"Yes I did," Lamo replied.

"And he told you: hopefully worldwide discussions. He told you reaction to the Apache video gave him immense hope. He wanted people to see the truth. He told you people would actually change if they saw the information. He also told you that he recognised he might just be young, naive and stupid."

"He did," Lamo replied.

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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Adrian Lamo Bradley Manning Bradley Manning Trial Fort Meade Over-classification Whistleblower Wikileaks