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In Manning Trial, Tracing WikiLeaks Files to Harm May Be ‘Extremely Complicated’

December 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Friday was the first court appearance for Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, accused as the prime source for the WikiLeaks document dumps. Ray Suarez discusses the day's proceedings with Arun Rath of PBS' "Frontline."
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on today’s proceedings, we are joined from Fort Meade by Arun Rath. He’s been covering the WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning story for our PBS partners “Frontline.”

Arun, welcome.

Give us an idea of how closed or open this proceeding was. Were you allowed in the courtroom?

ARUN RATH, “Frontline”: No, there was only a pool of about nine reporters who are allowed inside the courtroom.

The proceeding itself is actually — it is an opening proceeding. It’s open to the public. If you wanted to come, you could try to get one of spots inside. And some people did. There was actually I think a supporter of Bradley Manning who, as the session was ending today, shouted out, “Bradley Manning, you’re a hero.”

But there are clear security restrictions in place, so that, for the media that aren’t in the pool, the rest of us were in a media center some distance off from the courtroom watching it on a closed-circuit television feed.

RAY SUAREZ: As the equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceeding, what did the government and Bradley Manning’s defense have to do today?

ARUN RATH: Well, today was actually — you would have thought it was going to be a fairly straightforward procedural sort of day, where they would read him his charges, go through the sort of basic things that they would ordinarily go through.

It didn’t get that far into the process. They read the charges to him. Bradley Manning said that he understood the charges. And when it came to asking the lawyers whether or not they felt that the investigating officer who acts as the judge in this case could perform the duties impartially, the defense counsel for Bradley Manning said no.

And at that point, David Coombs, who is Bradley Manning’s civilian defense counsel, then launched into a whole point-by-point argument as to why this — the presiding officer, the investigating officer wasn’t impartial and why he should be — why he should recuse himself from the trial.

RAY SUAREZ: So, was this a — was this a gesture or more like an actual pleading?

Was Bradley Manning’s civilian lawyer trying to get the investigative officer, the equivalent of the judge, removed from this proceeding?

ARUN RATH: He was.

He was telling — he was asking him to recuse himself. The odd thing about this is that only the investigating officer can actually make the decision to recuse himself. So, basically, he was appealing to the investigating officer, basically to the judge, trying to explain to him that you are not impartial for these reasons.

And he went through all of them, one of them being that the — this officer works for the Department of Justice in a civilian job, and the Department of Justice has an ongoing investigation into Bradley Manning. And he brought that up as what he thought was a clear conflict.

The investigating officer said that he works in a division completely separate from that, the Child Exploitation Services Section. But, still, that wasn’t enough. There was an awful lot of beating up on the judge, basically, over the course of this hearing.

RAY SUAREZ: For more than a year, news reports have carried stories of rough treatment of the accused. How did Bradley Manning look in court today?

ARUN RATH: Well, it was interesting.

I actually — I did not recognize him at first when I saw him. Part of that might have been that it was sort of grainy video from the closed-circuit recording. But he was — his hair is a little bit longer, a little bit darker. Maybe he was dying it before he was incarcerated. And he looked relatively healthy. He actually looked a little bit more heavyset than he was, not the sort of small, waifish kid that we have seen in these pictures.

RAY SUAREZ: Arun, is this going to be a complicated case? We’re talking about thousands of documents that were released by someone, but that were secret or rated in some cases even top secret, but now have been public knowledge for a long time. Is there going to be some difficulty, some complications with handling them in court?

ARUN RATH: It certainly seems that way.

I mean, we didn’t get more than five minutes into the proceedings today before it got complicated and completely derailed on this issue about the impartiality of the judge. And in the course of that discussion, again, Bradley Manning’s counsel brought up the fact of tracing the harm done by these documents and what can actually be traced to that.

So, it’s going to be extremely complicated, no doubt about that.

RAY SUAREZ: These documents were readable by basically anyone with a computer. Is it part of the government’s burden to demonstrate that they were actually received by people who meant to do harm to the United States?

ARUN RATH: Well, the charge sheet does list that you can — if the information gets to the enemy even indirectly, that is still an offense.

I think that it’s a little bit up in the air still, to an extent, how much they’re going to have to be able to prove that, because again, it’s very complicated to be able to draw these lines from one thing to another and say that there was harm done. And there’s been a lot of reporting over the past year, and there’s been talk about people who have had their lives put in danger.

But in terms of an actual case, it’s — again, it’s difficult to really draw those connections.

RAY SUAREZ: What punishment does the young intelligence officer face if he’s convicted on some of the more serious counts?

ARUN RATH: Well, he — it is a capital crime. He could be sentenced to death for this.

The prosecution in this case — this might be a little bit unusual — has already said that they will not seek the death penalty. But they could at any point. And they could always change their minds on that. And it’s brought up by his counsel that he is facing — this is a capital offense.

He could be executed for this. But it seems extremely unlikely that would happen, given that the prosecution has already said that they are not going to pursue that.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we know if any of the other big personalities associated with this case might end up being called as witnesses, for instance, Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks?

ARUN RATH: It seems pretty unlikely.

One of the defense’s biggest complaints today was about their witness list largely being not looked over properly by the judge, that out of they said 38 witnesses that they had requested that were not the same witnesses as the prosecution, only two were allowed. And that’s still being contested.

So, they have asked for testimony from President Obama and Hillary Clinton. So it’s a pretty ambitious list. And I can imagine they would try for Assange, but I can imagine that not working out.

It was interesting. Actually, in the proceedings today, Bradley Manning’s attorney again cited this Department of Justice investigation as a concern. And he actually speculated that there might be some sort of work for a plea agreement where the Department of Justice would try to get a plea agreement from Bradley Manning to get him to testify to get Julian Assange, in the words of his lawyer.

RAY SUAREZ: Arun Rath from PBS “Frontline,” thanks for joining us.  

ARUN RATH: Thanks very much, Ray.

JIM LEHRER: There is a link to more of “Frontline”‘s coverage of the WikiLeaks story on our website.