A seven-day hearing into the biggest national security leak in U.S. history ended Thursday with defense lawyers insisting that the accused soldier was a victim of overreaching by a military that didn’t even follow its own rules for safeguarding sensitive information.
The government argued that it had made its case for a court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, a troubled young intelligence analyst who prosecutors said aided the enemy by leaking troves of documents.
Lawyers for the prosecution and defense gave closing arguments in the preliminary hearing at Fort Meade to determine whether Manning should be tried for allegedly sending hundreds of thousands of diplomatic documents and Iraq and Afghanistan war zone field reports to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The presiding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, has until Jan. 16 to recommend whether the 24-year-old Crescent, Okla., native should be court-martialed.
Speaking for more than an hour, the chief prosecutor, Capt. Ashden Fein, methodically recounted evidence supporting each of the 22 charges, illustrating his arguments with several dozen slides projected on courtroom screens.
“He did this during a time of war,” Fein said.
Laid bare on the Internet last year were military procedures for providing air support for ground troops and procedures used to fly the injured out for medical treatment, he said. Leaked documents also included names of units, intelligence sources and methods, as well as tactics used by troops in general, including secretive special operations commando forces, he said.
“He wrongfully and wantonly caused the information to be published on the Internet” knowing that “enemies of the United States use the Internet,” Fein said.
Manning was trained and trusted to provide intelligence that battlefield commanders needed, and he abused that trust while serving in Iraq from late 2009 to mid-2010, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney David Coombs spoke for about 20 minutes and never denied his client had leaked the documents.
But he said the Army had failed Manning as he repeatedly struggled with emotional problems, and that the government is now piling on charges in an attempt to strong-arm Manning into pleading guilty.
The defense says Manning was nearly paralyzed by internal struggles over his belief that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. They suggest he should not have been sent to the war zone to begin with and say his chain of command failed to suspend his access to classified data despite clear signs of emotional distress, including his statement to a supervisor that he had multiple personalities.
“This is my problem,” Coombs quoted Manning as writing in a letter to one of his supervisors. Manning said it had hurt ties with his family, distressed him all the time and that he “thought a career in the military could get rid of it.”
Instead, Manning said in the letter, the emotional turmoil had “worn me down … makes my entire life feel like a bad dream that won’t end.”
As for security in the intelligence unit where Manning worked, Coombs called it a “lawless unit” where there was a “critical breakdown” in standards. Witness testimony revealed soldiers were allowed to load personal music CDs onto their workplace computers and play music, movies and video games stored on a network meant for classified data.
Coombs said the government needs “a reality check” for bringing such serious charges, which carry combined maximum penalties of more than 150 years in prison.
“Thirty years is more than sufficient” as a maximum punishment, Coombs said, asking Almanza to dismiss most of the charges, including the most serious, aiding the enemy.
Coombs rebutted remarks from Obama administration officials, including last week’s statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Manning’s alleged acts had hurt U.S. interests. He said the repeated assertions about damage done was like Chicken Little crying that the sky was falling.
“The sky is not falling, the sky has not fallen and the sky will not fall,” Coombs said.
And he challenged the government’s original decision to classify as “secret” the material WikiLeaks published.
“Why are we here when all this information is out in public?” Coombs said.
Prosecutors noted that although the material has been published, the military still considers it classified.
Manning’s supporters say the information published by WikiLeaks exposed war crimes and triggered the wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.
Almanza’s recommendation will go to Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, for a final decision on whether Manning’s case will go to a court-martial. Linnington has no deadline to respond.