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WikiLeaks and aiding the enemy: the court martial of Bradley Manning

Even before his trial commenced, United States Army private Bradley Manning must have known that he would be spending a significant time in prison. Think decades rather than years. Manning pleaded guilty…

The trial of US Army private Bradley Manning - alleged to have leaked classified information to whistleblower website WikiLeaks - is underway. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Even before his trial commenced, United States Army private Bradley Manning must have known that he would be spending a significant time in prison. Think decades rather than years.

Manning pleaded guilty in February 2013 to 10 charges relating to the misuse of classified information, including the admission that he supplied a cache of documents to Julian Assange’s whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

Manning could face up to 20 years imprisonment on these charges alone. But he now faces 12 remaining charges that include the very serious allegation that he aided enemies of the United States. If he is convicted of that charge, he could face a life sentence.

Much has been made of the parallels between Manning’s situation and the plight of Daniel Ellsberg, a US military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.

But there is a major difference: Ellsberg released classified information and he faced criminal charges for that act. However, the documents released by Ellsberg were only historical and could not seriously be thought to compromise the interests of the United States.

The Pentagon Papers revealed a lack of candor by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration concerning the Vietnam War and subjected the US to ridicule, but it did not jeopardise security. The papers were released during the Nixon presidency but none of the documents related to events that occurred during the Nixon administration.

Ellsberg may have done something unlawful but no-one could claim that it compromised ongoing military operations. This point is clearly revealed by the Nixon tapes, in which the president and his aides were initially rather pleased by the leaking of documents that embarrassed Johnson. In fact, the Supreme Court refused to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers because they found that nothing in the documents could possibly be considered a military secret. The charges against Ellsberg were ultimately dismissed because of the misbehavior of Nixon’s infamous plumbers unit.

But Manning is charged with releasing many thousands of government documents and not just historical records. The US government contends that this distinguishes Manning from Ellsberg’s situation – Ellsberg simply released documents that he was not authorised to release, and there was not a serious claim that his conduct put any American interest at risk.

To convict Manning on the more serious charges, the government cannot simply allege that Manning did something he was not supposed to do. That issue is no longer in dispute as he admits to leaking the documents: rather, the prosecutors must now prove that Manning’s conduct actually aided the enemies of the United States.

Proof of giving aid to the enemy can be quite elusive and the government clearly faces real challenges. Much has been made of the fact that some of the leaked information was found among the possessions of Osama bin Laden. However, while this may be an interesting tidbit, it really means very little if anything. The fact that bin Laden had information disclosed by Manning does not mean that the information assisted him in any current or future act directed against the US.

Bradley Manning disclosed information to WikiLeaks but the US government will struggle to demonstrate it directly aided the enemy in conflict against US forces. EPA/Philippe E. Chasse

The question is: did the information Manning released directly aid the enemies of the US? To prevail on this point, the government will really need to show that something that was illegally disclosed was both current and of use to bin Laden. Evidence that Manning disclosed current or future troop deployments, code breaking information, future strategy or identities of undercover agents would be rather convincing and persuasive evidence of having aided the enemy.

The government does not have to prove that bin Laden said to someone that he was grateful for the leaked information because it helped him plan terror campaigns. The nature of the information itself can be persuasive as to whether it compromised US interests and aided the enemy.

It is likely that most of the thousands of leaked documents are not of interest to friend or foe. The government has the challenge of sifting through them and finding something that can convince an observer it was of direct benefit to the enemy. That will not be an easy task. While Manning’s guilty plea may have assured him some prison time, he has also taken the momentum out of the government’s claims and left the government with a very difficult proof requirement.

Since Manning admits to the theft of the documents, the government will not be able to build on that incident, and it is now irrelevant in the court martial proceedings. The government’s entire case now rests on proving the value of the purloined evidence.

Depending on what is in the file, the odds may now favour Manning being acquitted of the charges of aiding the enemy.

That is some good news, but doesn’t change the fact that he has already admitted to releasing the documents in the first place, an act that may see him sentenced to twenty years in jail.

Either way, Bradley Manning is still looking at a long time behind bars.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Shepherd


    There is something seriously stupid about Americans writing this sort of drivel because the soldiers would not be in any trouble at all if the US hadn't illegally invaded the places they sent the soldiers to.

  2. John Crest

    logged in via email

    LOL. But but but, he's only hurt America, therefore all his sins should be forgiven.

    *sips latte*

    1. David Doe

      Videogame Producer

      In reply to John Crest

      What an incredibly lucid and incisive response.

      I'm sure that this has added more to the discussion than the article on which it was posted. Thank you for illuminating us with your commentary, and for letting us all know that the type of coffee you drink makes a difference as the type of political views you hold.

      Truly, you have a stunning intellect.

  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Well I find the access to the State Department cables interesting if not always illuminating - its sort of like reading an expanded version of The Economist. It was interesting to compare the Afghan war diary and how the media reported on Australia's involvement - I am surprised no one has done a systematic comparison of how the media reported incidents and how there were reported in the war diary. I got less from the Iraq War Diary. So I appreciate what Bradley Manning has done.
    Its worth pointing…

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  4. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    My understanding is that Bradley Manning's motivations were to expose serious abuses and even war crimes by the United States. If he had been a Waffen SS soldier or in the army of the Soviet Union we would call him a hero. We would insist that the abuses he was exposing were properly investigated and perpetrators of those abuses punished. We would demand that he NOT be tortured (as he has been) or prosecuted for acting on his conscience.

    But because he's on our side, exposing the abuses of our great and powerful ally, everything is different. Why?

  5. Riddley Walker


    Bradley Manning deserves the Nobel Peace prize, and should be awarded a medal for personal courage.

    1. Nikola Pijovic

      PhD Candidate, Political Science at Australian National University

      In reply to Nikola Pijovic

      What i meant to say, before i was so rudely interrupted by my ENTER button on the keyboard is that that poor sucker is going to be locked up for a long long time.... I have read the documents his lawyer has placed in the public arena, about his treatment in jail and can say that i feel so, so sorry for the young man.

      If there were more Bradley Mannings in the armed forces of many countries, this world would be a batter place. The US will try to hit him hard so as to send a message that whistle blowers are doomed.

      And yet that same US goes around the world telling countries that they need a strong civil society, and whistle blower protection laws.............hahahahaha, what a joke.

      Bradley Maning your sacrifice is NOT IN VAIN!!!

  6. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    I seriously hope his mental health holds up. I for one will be writing to him should he be imprisoned.

    He is an informational and Libertarian hero.

  7. Jim KABLE


    I am unimpressed by any nation which wages vested interest wars on others and tries to hide its misdeeds - as with the US led war in Iraq - and Afghanistan. I am shocked too that my university should be hosting a cell of US Studies within its precincts permitting one of its academics to write an essay justifying the torture etc of a man of honour: Bradley MANNING. I had an uncle (now passed away) in the US who told me some years back that "Justice in the US is just us!" He had not been born in the US - so had the insight to see where the national self-image diverged from the reality.

  8. Greg Young

    logged in via Facebook

    Daniel Ellsberg was at least tried in a genuine court of law that had regard to due process.

    The Courts Martial by their very nature combine the role of prosecutor and jury. It is impossible for a trial such as Manning's to be properly conducted or for a transparently fair outcome to be achieved.

    As with David Hicks, Manning's guilty plea seems likely to be an attempt for him to curtail his maltreatment and get it over with, rather than an acknowledgment of wrong-doing. After all, we do not see hundreds of corporate media outlets in the USA facing any penalty for publishing this leaked material, are we?

  9. Ian Bolton


    The Nuremberg trials set a precedence that soldiers could be found guilty of war crimes for obeying orders that would be considered illegal in international law, such as executing civilians, cooperating in death camps etc. The trials found that there was a duty on the individual to refuse orders if they believed them to be illegal. Bradley Manning has been exposed to secret documents and videos that reveal war crimes and illegal acts on a daily basis. Bradley has fulfilled his duties and responsibilities…

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  10. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


    The only legal question to be asked by any just court, is whether or not Bradley Manning released evidence of attempts by the US military and Diplomatic Service to pervert the course of justice. Whether or not the US Military as a whole acted as an accessory before and after the committal of a range of crimes, by withholding and falsifying evidence.
    The current argument of the US military is that the truth of their criminal activities would hurt the war effort. Every reasonable person knows this…

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