FORT MEADE — Sitting in front of a packed military courtroom, Army intelligence officer Bradley Manning pleaded guilty to 10 out of 22 charges that he misused classified information, but pleaded not guilty to the more serious charges of willfully aiding the enemy.
Dressed in full uniform, the 25-year-old Army private told the court in a prepared statement that he passed classified government documents to the website WikiLeaks in part because the U.S. was “risking so much for people who felt so unwilling to cooperate with us, leading to hatred and frustration on both sides.”
“I believe that if the general public had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate as to the role of the military and foreign policy in general,” he said under oath.
He pleaded guilty to modified, lesser versions of the government’s original charges, admitting to releasing the classified documents but denying that he “aided the enemy.” The charges he admitted to could bring him 20 years in prison, a fine and possible loss of rank and status in the military. Prosecutors, however, said they would push for conviction on all 22 of the original charges, which can carry a life sentence. Manning could still change his plea.
Manning’s statements about his reasons for leaking documents will not be considered a defense for answering the charges, Judge Lind ruled this week, but they may be weighed in his sentencing. His court-martial trial is slated for June 3rd, and is expected to take up to 12 weeks.
Manning was arrested in May 2010 on charges of transferring hundreds of thousands of State Department and military documents to WikiLeaks, including war logs, documents on Guantanamo Bay detainees, combat videos and thousands of State Department cables that exposed candid communication and shocked U.S. diplomats around the world.
Manning appeared composed and confident as he read the 35-page statement, which outlined how he handled classified information, the development of his connection with WikiLeaks, and his reasons for sharing the documents.
He spoke about his choice to disclose classified war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “I believed, and still believe, these are some of most important documents of our time.”
The statement also revealed that when he decided to make the information public, he first contacted a Washington Post reporter who did not seem interested. He then left an unanswered phone message with The New York Times. Ultimately, he said, he chose WikiLeaks because he felt it was a news organization that was “within his reach.”
Manning talked about his discovery of a video taken from a U.S. Apache helicopter, which showed soldiers shooting at a group of people that included two employees of the Reuters news agency. In the clip, which swept across the Internet under the name “Collateral Murder,” a van later stops, and its passengers try to rescue the one victim who was still moving. The American soldiers open fire once again, killing all the adults and gravely wounding two children who, they later learn, had been in the van.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle,” one unidentified soldier is heard saying on the video.
“That’s right,” another answers.
Manning said when he heard the gunner repeating over his headset that he hoped the injured man would pick up a weapon, thus giving the shooter a rationale for firing on him again, it seemed “similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” He referred to the video as a kind of “war porn” footage of violence that regularly circulated among soldiers.
He said when he learned that Reuters had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the video, but that the military had not turned it over, he decided to release the video himself.
Later, Judge Colonel Denise Lind asked Manning to verify that he knew the full extent of each of the charges he was pleading guilty to.
“When did you make a decision at some point that you wanted to share the video?” Lind later asked.
“Probably a week after viewing it,” Manning said.
“Were you authorized to do that?” Lind asked.
“No, your honor,” Manning said.
The video turned out to be unclassified, but the charge remains because Manning wasn’t authorized to make it public.
Lind took steps to make sure that Manning understood that by pleading guilty, he was waiving any potential “self-help” defense, in which he might claim he had been forced to make a moral decision “between two evils.”
“You said the content of these documents upset you greatly. Did you believe you were acting out of a legal duty?” Lind asked.
“No, your honor,” Manning said. “I had a lot of alternatives. I had the chain of command. I knew where the Public Affairs office was, and I knew they have the authority to make sensitive information public.”
Earlier in the week, lead prosecutor Ashden Fein raised concerns about allowing Manning to read a prepared statement, saying the move would deny the government an opportunity to cross examine its contents.
“Some aggravation is likely to occur during a dialogue with a judge. It’s just strange for the accused to be sworn, and then read a prepared statement,” Fein said.
Lind decided to remove Manning’s signature from the document, so that it could not be considered as a sworn statement.
Fein said on Wednesday that the government planned to call 141 witnesses, including 15 who would say WikiLeaks information caused harm to the United States. He asked for closed-door sessions on 33 of those witnesses, because some of their testimony could reveal classified information.
Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and an attorney for WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, attended Thursday’s hearing.
He said he rejected government’s position that Manning signed away his right to act on his conscience because he accepted the rules of the military. “If you look at the oath people take when they go into the military, it’s the agreement or the oath to obey orders, but it’s also the oath to obey the Constitution,” he said.
“If military orders counter something in the Constitution, you have to obey the Constitution because that’s the higher law.”
Ratner filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of journalists to publicly release court filings in the case. Transcripts and motions have so far been largely shielded from public view, though the Department of Defense released 84 filings on Wednesday.
He said he found Manning’s statement moving. “I was in tears in the courtroom. Because here’s a young man who’s really idealistic, and wanting to make things for the better, and this is what he tried.”