The Thin Line Between Bradley Manning and Osama bin Laden

On the first day of the trial of Bradley Manning, the Army private accusing of aiding enemies of the United States by transmitting classified documents to Wikileaks, attorneys did their best to shape perceptions. One key suggestion, the link to bin Laden, isn't as clear as has been reported.

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On the first day of the trial of Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of aiding enemies of the United States by transmitting classified documents to Wikileaks, attorneys did their best to shape perceptions. The judge hearing the case was offered two views of the defendant. One was of a mixed-up kid trying to make the world a better place. The other was a portrait of a man hoping to undermine the United States' war in Iraq by sharing information with al Qaeda — and, indirectly, with Osama bin Laden himself.

The key word on that last point is "indirectly." It's been known for a while that the government's attempt to prove that Manning's leaks were damaging — an important component of the its case — would include an effort to draw a line between Manning and bin Laden. In February, we outlined how that would work. In short: bin Laden, during his Internet-free Abbottabad tenure, asked for and received documents from the Manning Wikileaks dump on digital media. When the Navy raided bin Laden's compound, they found that media, which eventually made its way back to the FBI's headquarters in Quantico. Demonstrating the full chain of evidence back to bin Laden isn't easy, prompting the government to suggest it would call one of the Navy SEALs to testify about finding the unidentified device.

It's worth noting that the government leaked its desire to call the SEAL prior to Manning acquiescing to forego the right to a jury trial. In other words, the government wanted to call the SEAL — an obviously high-wattage witness — back when it thought that the case would be heard by military jurors, not a single judge. Whether or not they still plan to use him isn't known; the 140-odd witnesses the government plans to call will be unveiled in sets of 25.

But the government didn't shy away from using the name "bin Laden" in its portrayal of Manning and its motives today. The lead prosecutor, Cpt. Joe Morrow, began the trial with a one-hour opening statement. There is no transcript for it — a subject of substantial wrangling — but Kevin Gosztola provides a summary at Firedoglake.

Morrow began by putting up this statement from the chat logs between Manning and government informant Adrian Lamo, who turned Manning into federal authorities: “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8=months, what would you do?”

He declared, “This is not a case about a government official” making discreet disclosures. It is a case about a soldier who “literally dumped” information on the Internet “into the hands of the enemy.” It is a case about “what happens when arrogance meets access to information.”

Morrow's later mention of bin Laden had the desired effect on the media, if not the judge. U.S. News and World Report ran an article titled, "Bradley Manning Prosecutors Claim Evidence of Bin Laden Link." NBC News originally reported the following:

Morrow presented a log from Manning’s personal computer dated May 11, 2010, showing that he downloaded a database with the personal information of every service member in Iraq—more than 74,000 in total. Morrow said that the government will show that by downloading this information, and turning it over for public release, Manning was providing foreign intelligence services with an effective phone book. He also cited communication found during the raid that killed bin Laden, in which the al-Qaida leader asked for this database.

Subsequent articles clarified that the request was for Wikileaks data at large, not the "phone book" database in particular. The distinction wasn't clearly articulated by the prosecutor, it seems, and the lack of a transcript doesn't help. Tweets like this have been misinterpreted, allowing the the impression of a direct request from bin Laden to Manning to persist online. There's no evidence that one exists — or even that bin Laden saw the information included on the electronic media.

When it was his turn, Manning's attorney David Coombs presented a contrasting image of Manning. Again, Gosztola:

Coombs described Manning as “not the typical soldier.” He had custom dog tags that said on the back “Humanist,” a “religious belief he ascribed to and those values are placing humans first, placing value on human life.”

Manning wanted to give the best possible information to his command and save lives. He had a strong desire to help his unit and hoped every soldier would come home safely.

Coombs pointed to a particular incident. On December 24, 2009, Manning was monitoring a convoy traveling near Baghdad. A car full of civilians pulled over to let it pass, inadvertently onto or into the blast radius of a roadside bomb. One of the Iraqis was killed in the explosion. Later, the Americans celebrated their good fortune at avoiding injury, but Manning couldn't forget the civilian death. (The incident is apparently mentioned in this contemporaneous news article.) That incident cemented his commitment to trying to end the war.

It's the nature of opening statements that they provide an outline of how each side wants the judge or jury to view the defendant. Every piece of evidence in the ensuing trial will be hung on that perception, seen through that lens. So it's not surprising that each side went to such lengths to suggest that Manning sat close to one end or the other of an ethical see-saw. Deciding where he actually sits is up to the judge.

Top photo: Manning arrives at the courthouse last month, with escort. (AP) Inset: Courtroom photo from Monday at Fort Meade by William Hennessy/Reuters.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.