FORT MEADE — An Army private suspected of sending reams of classified documents to the secret-sharing WikiLeaks website was illegally punished at a Marine Corps brig and should get 112 days cut from any prison sentence he receives if convicted, a military judge ruled Tuesday.
Army Col. Denise Lind ruled during a pretrial hearing that authorities went too far in their strict confinement of Pfc. Bradley Manning for nine months in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., in 2010 and 2011. Manning was confined to a windowless cell 23 hours a day, sometimes with no clothing. Brig officials said it was to keep him from hurting himself or others.
Lind said Manning’s confinement was “more rigorous than necessary.” She added that the conditions “became excessive in relation to legitimate government interests.”
Manning faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy, which carries a maximum sentence of life behind bars. His trial begins March 6.
The 25-year-old intelligence analyst had sought to have the charges thrown out, arguing the conditions were egregious. Military prosecutors had recommended a seven-day sentence reduction, conceding Manning was improperly kept for that length of time on highly restrictive suicide watch, contrary to a psychiatrist’s recommendation.
Lind rejected a defense contention that brig commanders were influenced by higher-ranking Marine Corps officials at Quantico or the Pentagon.
Manning showed no reaction as Lind read her decision. He fidgeted when the judge took the bench to announce her ruling, sometimes tapping his chin or mouth with a pen and frequently glancing at his attorney’s notepad, but those movements tapered off during the hour and 45 minutes it took the judge to read the lengthy opinion.
Mike McKee, one of about a dozen Manning supporters in the courtroom, said he was disappointed. He called the ruling “very conservative,” although he said he didn’t expect the charges to be thrown out.
“I don’t find it a victory,” McKee said. “Credit like that becomes much less valuable if the sentence turns out to be 80 years.”
Jeff Paterson of the Bradley Manning Support Network, which is funding Manning’s defense, said the sentencing credit “doesn’t come close to compensating Bradley” for his harsh treatment.
“The ruling is not strong enough to give the military pause before mistreating the next American soldier awaiting trial,” Paterson wrote in an email.
Lind ruled on the first day of a scheduled four-day hearing at Fort Meade, near Baltimore.
The hearing is partly to determine whether Manning’s motivation matters. Prosecutors want the judge to bar the defense from producing evidence at trial regarding his motive for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of secret war logs and diplomatic cables. They say motive is irrelevant to whether he leaked intelligence, knowing it would be seen by al-Qaida
Manning allegedly told an online confidant-turned-informant that he leaked the material because “I want people to see the truth” and “information should be free.”
Defense attorney David Coombs said Tuesday that barring such evidence would cripple the defense’s ability to argue that Manning leaked only information that he believed couldn’t hurt the United States or help a foreign nation.
Manning has offered to take responsibility for the leaks in a pending plea offer but he still could face trial on charges such as aiding the enemy.
The Crescent, Okla., native is accused of leaking classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010. He is also charged with leaking 2007 video of a U.S. helicopter crew gunning down 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately, having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons.
Manning supporters consider him a whistleblower whose actions exposed war crimes and helped trigger the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings in late 2010.