WASHINGTON – While it may be a curious legal strategy, an Army private’s decision to admit in court that he sent hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks has energized his supporters around the world.
Pfc. Bradley Manning, 25, has been called by some a whistleblowing hero, a political prisoner and a symbol of the misplaced priorities of the U.S. military and the Obama administration.
Others, particularly in the United States, view him as a traitor. Regardless of his motives, he appears likely to spend many years in a military prison.
At the very least, Manning likely ended speculation that he leaked the largest trove of classified material in U.S. history wantonly or unknowingly.
At a court hearing Thursday, Manning read a 35-page statement describing his internal deliberations about whether to send the first batch of hundreds of thousands of battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he was trying to expose the American military’s disregard for human life and provoke a public debate about U.S. military and foreign policy.
“I felt this sense of relief by them having it,” Manning said Thursday of WikiLeaks. “I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience.”
Jeff Paterson of the Bradley Manning Support Network, which has raised more than $900,000 for Manning’s legal defense, said the statement confirmed what supporters have long thought of him.
“We’ve been defending this person as a heroic whistleblower for 2½ years now, and it was inspiring and it was motivating to finally hear in his own words why he made this life-changing and possibly history-changing decision,” Paterson said.
Besides the battlefield reports, he sent WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of State Department diplomatic cables, detainee records from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and other classified records.
He also released a 2007 combat video of a U.S. helicopter assault that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer.
Manning said he didn’t think the material would harm the United States, although the diplomatic cables would be embarrassing.
The Obama administration has said it threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained relations with other governments.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and the author of “Necessary Secrets,” said Manning made a brash decision to release the State Department cables and should be punished for it.
“He said nothing he put out, he thought was damaging to the United States. I would beg to differ with that,” Schoenfeld said. “He wasn’t in a position to evaluate the damage.”
But Schoenfeld doesn’t think Manning was guilty of his most serious charge, aiding the enemy. “I don’t think that was his intention,” he said.
Manning’s supporters say the documents exposed war crimes. They also credit a State Department cable indicating that the U.S. would not back former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with helping spark the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings in 2010.
“I think he really deserves great credit for his courage and for doing the right thing,” said Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing that the U.S. had deceived the public about the Vietnam War. “I hope people will see these quotes and realize how well-motivated he was.”
Military justice experts say it’s unclear whether Manning will derive any benefit from pleading guilty to offenses that carry a maximum 20-year sentence. He admitted guilt without the benefit of a deal with prosecutors – known in military parlance as a “naked plea.”
After the judge accepted the plea, prosecutors announced that they would go forward with the remaining charges. Aiding the enemy, an offense that has not been brought to trial in decades, carries a maximum life sentence. Manning is also charged with violating federal espionage laws and theft counts that carry decades in prison.
Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale and has followed the Manning case, said Manning gained little by pleading guilty without a deal.
“The only thing that might have been a nice outcome for him would have been if the government had said they don’t want to pursue these other charges,” Fidell said. “The only thing he has gained is some brownie points from the judge.”
But Michael Navarre, a former Navy judge advocate and military justice analyst, said there might be some advantage, because the remaining charges would be more difficult to prove.
“He’s laying the groundwork for a more lenient sentence and laying the groundwork for a potential defense to the aiding the enemy and the espionage charges,” Navarre said. “You end up with a more reasonable starting position – ‘I admit I did it, but I didn’t think it was going to harm anyone.’”
Internationally, Manning tends to be seen far more favorably than in the United States – particularly in countries such as Britain where many opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and see his prosecution as an attempt by the Pentagon to punish a soldier who dared challenge the war.
Manning’s picture was on the front page of Britain’s left-leaning Guardian and The Independent newspapers Thursday.
Supporters held an early-evening vigil in Manning’s honor Friday in front of the U.S. Embassy in London. Ben Griffin, a former British soldier who resigned to protest the tactics of his American colleagues in Iraq, said Manning was trying to gain control over a trial that has been weighted against him.
“He is defining – before the prosecution and anyone else can try to define for him – why he did this,” Griffin said. “It’s been put out into the public domain now.”
Jude Fleming, a 50-year-old Canadian teacher, said Manning’s statement of principles had raised his moral stature in the eyes of the world.
“I think it elevates him,” she said. “It takes the word ‘alleged’ out. Instead of saying ‘alleged whistleblower,’ all of a sudden he becomes the hero: He is the whistleblower. He’s proud to say that he’s the whistleblower.”
Jesselyn Radack, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, said her clients accused of leaking classified material are treated like “rock stars” abroad. But she doesn’t envision a groundswell of support for Manning in the U.S.
“We continue to move on this very draconian path in terms of whistleblowers,” Radack said. “I think historically, people will be vindicated, but that may not be for decades or even in my lifetime.”
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.