A Dispatch From Bradley Manning's Conviction
Scenes from Fort Meade
There were two blond heads sitting at opposite tables at the court martial of Pfc Bradley Manning. The lead prosecutor, Major Ashden Fein, is nine years older than the defendant and several inches taller, a former prep school drill team cadet with a wife and child. He has a rapid fire, abrasive way of speaking and a Northern accent despite his Texas upbringing. He couldn't be more different than the queer computer geek on trial for transmitting classified information to WikiLeaks, but they look the same when you see them from behind the courtroom bar. It was the end of July, and the court was waiting for the judge to arrive with her verdict. The prosecutor appeared relaxed, slumped in his chair with his legs stretched out. Manning was sitting silently, poised and still.
"He stands more ramrod straight than anyone when the judge comes in," Bill Wagner said of Manning. Wagner picked up the first visitor pass when the pretrial hearings began two years ago. That was five years after retiring from work in solar physics at NASA. Wagner has attended court a few days a week ever since. I saw him that morning at the entrance to the Fort Meade defense base in Maryland, where the trial is held, holding a sign reading "Thank you Bradley Manning" alongside a couple dozen other supporters. Some cars driving past would honk and wave but on the ground the mood was far from optimistic. I heard a number of supporters compare it to a funeral. Everyone I talked to believed Manning would be found guilty on all counts, the worst of which -- "aiding the enemy" -- carried an inevitable life sentence.
Manning had the best posture in the room when the crowd stood for Judge Denise Lind, who delivered the verdict immediately after seating. With each charge, she'd read from her notes then, with an arched eyebrow, peer over her bifocals to look at Manning to pronounce him guilty or not. Twenty-two charges and four minutes later, she paused and said, "Court is in recess until zero nine thirty tomorrow."
And then video feed was off.
I was watching the footage in the court overflow room with thirty other spectators. "What happened?" someone asked. "I thought they would say what the charges are," another person murmured. Because Judge Lind listed the charges as code violation numbers, people were confused as to what was the outcome. A representative from the Bradley Manning Support Network walked through the crowded room, loudly proclaiming "Not guilty of aiding the enemy! Not guilty of aiding the enemy!" But there was no victory in her voice. The crowd remained silent. So that was one of the two "not guilty" verdicts she announced. What was the other?
"The Farah video," said a middle aged blonde woman looking over check marks on her spiral bound notebook, meaning the Granai airstrike video. Some supporters of Manning who attend the trial regularly were used to hearing about charges as numbers.
"So that's it?" an older Asian woman in a tie neck blouse asked her.
I got back to my car and the coffee I'd left in the cup holder was still warm.
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After the verdict was announced, a group of supporters gathered in a Panera at a nearby strip mall. I took a seat with Michael Marceau, part of Veterans for Peace, who took part in the first protest for Manning outside Quantico in 2010, where Manning was held in solitary confinement. He has followed the case closely ever since. "He was in my congressional district when he enlisted," Marceau said, explaining why Manning's case was of particular interest to him. He told me Veterans for Peace was formed in part to create connections between different generations of veterans. Something that struck me immediately about Manning's supporters is they are a multigenerational group -- stay-at-home mothers and retirees, as well as Occupy activists. Then again, Marceau, who is in his late sixties, took part in the Occupy DC Freedom Plaza actions too.
Later in the evening, I drove to DC where a larger group assembled at Dupont Circle. A screen was set up in front of the fountain to play the footage Manning is best known for leaking, what Julian Assange once called "Collateral Murder," the video of the Apache helicopter attack on civilians. The crowd formed a line and marched on to the street chanting "The truth is not a war crime." We passed a building on Q Street with Manning's image projected on it alternating with statements in bold white letters like "HE DID IT FOR US" and "COURAGE AGAINST THE COWARDLY." The march worked its way south until stopping in front of the White House.
I talked with Bill Wagner again on my way back from the demonstration. "You see Bradley more than his parents," I said. Even if that means just the back of his head from inside the courtroom. He nodded, "I picture him as one of our kids." I originally got in touch with Bill through his brother James, who is gay, and lives in a beautiful apartment in Chelsea full of art and books. Manning didn't seem to have mentors in his life, certainly no one like the Wagners to look up to -- Bill who can explain how a satellite works, James with his stories of activism with Act-Up. Instead, he drifted from low paying jobs at a Guitar Center in Chicago and Abercrombie and Fitch in suburban Maryland before enlisting. But for someone who supports Manning as a whistleblower, wondering what his life might have been like with deeper family ties and more trusted friends is immaterial -- he did the right thing. "It says something about the human psyche that he could pull out of all of that and make something of himself," Bill commented as we arrived at the Metro station.
We know a lot about Bradley Manning because of this trial -- his email password, the terms of endearment he used for a former boyfriend, his favorite books and general feelings about the world. Some of this came out in court, where a selfie he took was debated and chatlogs of his conversations were admitted as evidence. The rest in the media. We can construct a picture of him piecing together bits from conversations in the private correspondence revealed, the social media status updates that were discovered, and other digital traces that have been received in the court and in the media. But we are looking at his life from three years ago and he is now only 25. There haven't been Facebook updates since then. He's not chatting on AOL now. His life didn't stop after his arrest in 2010, but his online activity did.
Manning also doesn't speak to the press. "There are all these personal things that leaked in the public realm -- the chat logs and such," Alexa O'Brien told me. "But he's also been completely isolated since his arrest. So he has no concept of what is going on outside the courtroom other than what comes in from his defense counsel or public reporting he has access to while in confinement."
I ran into O'Brien later that evening. She's been there from the beginning too. Starting as a self-funded independent reporter, she has tirelessly covered the trial, often staying up until early hours in the morning typing transcripts from the hearings in her car. When the court closed Media Operations for several months, leaving her without a room to take in electronic devices, she took notes on pen and paper and transcribed them later.
She's never talked to him, but she calls out sometimes from the gallery to him a few words -- "thank you" or "see you tomorrow." Once court is in recess, free speech is legally protected. Two days before the verdict was announced, after the judge had left, O'Brien took the opportunity to tell him, "You're a good person, Bradley Manning."
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Manning's sentence, which could be as much as 90 years in prison will be decided this week. And he has a long appeals process ahead.