Shooting the Messenger: Reflections on the Court Martial of Whistle Blower PFC Bradley Manning

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I spent five days in and around Fort Meade military base in Maryland, attending the first two days of the court martial of the whistleblower, Bradley Manning.  The trial started on June 3rd, after he had already spent three years in prison–the first eleven months in solitary confinement. I had felt compelled to show my support to Manning by stepping inside the only physical space the public could share with him. What follows is a reflection on my observations and experiences during those days. My hope is that it will encourage all who value justice and human life to help Manning receive a fair trial, if not the justice he deserves.

A June 1st rally was organized by Bradley Manning Support Network and Courage to Resist to start off the International Week of Solidarity with Manning. My hotel was in an isolated location, and had been built to serve military and correctional facilities’ contractors. Anyone else would stand out, rather uncomfortably. While I waited for a taxi to the military base to attend the rally, I saw Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, also waiting. I was unable to contain my excitement; so, I approached him and thanked him for his untiring work for peace and justice. He offered me a ride, which I gladly accepted. While in the car, he talked about his concerns for sanctions against Iran, and his fear of a U.S. airstrike against my birth country.

One thousand people had gathered in front of the main gate of the base.  For two hours, activist-celebrities were interviewed, pictures were taken, and messages of support for Manning were crafted on a huge canvas. We then marched to another gate, where we listened to several speakers. An Iraqi woman, active with the Support Network, asked us to appeal to family and friends for contributions to Manning’s defense fund, which had already spent one million dollars for this purpose. Anti-war veterans spoke against our wars of aggression and in support of Manning. Retired Colonel Ann Wright gave a passionate speech, “…from one Colonel to another,” she urged the judge, Colonel Denise Lind, “to look deep into the law which tells us to whistle-blow on our government’s criminal acts committed in other lands in our name.” Indeed, Manning’s fate is in the hands of the judge, whom the defense had preferred over a military jury.

Dr. Ellsberg gave the closing speech. He called Manning “an extraordinary man,” who had risked his life, so people could “see the real nature of asymmetrical war.”  He also argued that, contrary to the government’s claims, Manning may have in fact saved many lives: After the Iraqis learned about the U.S. military’s cover-ups, their government refused to grant the U.S. army immunity from prosecution, which was the condition the U.S. had set for keeping some of its troops in Iraq. How many American soldiers might have been killed or maimed, if they had stayed?

In a panel discussion on Sunday, Ellsberg and two federal whistleblowers discussed the devastating personal effects of their truth-telling, which had compelled them to speak out in support of Manning and other whistleblowers. They pointed out that the government has refused to refer to them as whistleblowers, in order to deny them support under the Whistleblowers Protection Act. Michael Ratner, one of the WikiLeaks attorneys, argued that the government was intent on convicting Manning of espionage, not only to make an example of him, but also to convict Julian Assange of espionage. Before leaving, I got my black t-shirt, with the word Truth on it, which many of Manning’s supporters had worn during the pre-trial proceedings.

Monday morning, we gathered outside the main gate for a vigil, which was going to be held every day of the trial. At 8:00 the gate opened, cars were searched, and identification cards were copied. When we reached the last checkpoint, the guards told us we couldn’t enter the courtroom with our Truth shirts on.  I mentioned the irony of keeping Truth out of the courtroom, but was hushed by a man in line who perhaps thought my remarks might be construed as provocation. I turned my shirt inside out and waited.

With several quite large courtrooms on the base, the military had chosen one with a maximum capacity of twenty seats for the public.  We were told that most of us had to watch the proceedings via live-streaming in either an auditorium or a trailer, and wait for seats to become available in the courtroom. We had no clue which option would lead us to the courtroom sooner and how to find out when it was our turn.  I opted for the trailer and waited for the trial to begin at 9:30. By 10:00, we were all restless.

The judge entered the courtroom at 10:20 and went over proper procedures.  She asked the prosecutor if the media had been accommodated fully. The “Yes, ma’am” answer belied what we knew. In the opening remarks, the prosecutor declared that the government had enough evidence to prove Manning had leaked specific classified information at the behest of WikiLeaks, and had given “aid and comfort to the enemy.” Hence, he argued, Manning should be convicted of espionage.  David Coombs, the lead civilian defense, argued the evidence showed Manning had acted upon his strong humanistic values, and a naïve belief that the revelations might lead to a national discussion about our wars and foreign policy.

The main evidence Coombs referred to were week-long chats between Manning and Adrian Lamo, the man who had turned Manning in to the authorities. Manning had sought Lamo in confidence because of the latter’s online reputation as a hacker, WikiLeaks sympathizer, and LGBT activist. Ironically, if Lamo had not remained engaged with Manning over the significance and consequences of his actions, the defense would have had little evidence to support Manning’s assertions that his motives were noble.

During the recess, Colonel West and Chris Hedges arrived from New York to express their solidarity with Manning.   We had a lively discussion with them over the corporate media’s maligning of Bradley Manning, and its refusal to scrutinize the content of the leaks.  Before the resumption of the proceedings at 2:00, Colonel Wright brought us the news that now there were enough seats in the courtroom. The atmosphere inside was quite oppressive. Two huge men had created a wall between Manning and the public, so not even our eyes could meet his. As the trial resumed, the guards sat down on a side bench but kept their eyes fixed on Manning’s supporters. A number of private contractors and military personnel testified to Manning’s guilt of the charges he had already accepted.

The next morning, we learned that the judge had ordered security to admit the Truth shirts into the courtroom. I asked the guards about the criteria used to determine the inappropriateness of images and messages on clothing. The answer, “if they smack of propaganda.”  Everyone in line went inside the courtroom. After two technical testimonies, the prosecutor called Adrian Lamo to testify. A young man awkwardly walked to the witness stand. I felt a chill down my spine and decided that I could not despise this man, whose red eyes and sick look spoke to me of a conflicted soul. Lamo answered questions about his mental problems and medications, past hacking activities, arrest, and spending time in prison. In his cross-examination, the defense established that Lamo had thought of Manning as idealistic and not interested in selling and profiting from his access to classified documents.

I left Fort Meade on June 5th but have been keeping track of the proceedings.  I know that without massive popular support Manning will not receive justice. Maybe a conviction considered legally fair, but what about the punishment, ten or twenty years in prison? We owe it to Manning and to our democratic right to know and evaluate our government’s policies to demand that Manning receive justice.

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