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In Pre-Trial Hearings for WikiLeaks Case, Rulings on Admissable Evidence, Motive

January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Pre-trial hearings against Army Pfc. Bradley Manning have ended. Manning is accused of "aiding the enemy" by leaking thousands of classified military documents, many of which were published on WikiLeaks. Hari Sreenivasan talks Arun Rath, a reporter for PBS' Frontline and PRI's The World, about what happened in the courtroom
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JEFFREY BROWN:  And now: WikiLeaks, secret cables and the case against the soldier who allegedly took them.  

 Hari Sreenivasan is back with our update.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Bradley Manning, the Army private at the center of the largest leak of state secrets in America’s history is to begin court-martial in June.  

He was arrested in May of 2010 while serving in Iraq and charged with stealing and sharing hundreds of thousands of classified government cables, many of which were published by the whistle-blowing Web site WikiLeaks.  Manning, who is 25 years old, faces 22 charges, including — quote — “aiding the enemy,” which carries a life sentence. 

A pretrial hearing concluded yesterday.

And joining me now to talk about it is Arun Rath of PBS’ “Frontline” and PRI’s “The World.”  He has been covering the Manning case from the beginning.  

So, Arun, this is sort of what sets the ground rules for what will happen in the trial, right?  

ARUN RATH, “Frontline”:  Yes.

Basically, in these hearings, these pretrial hearings, they’re basically arguing about the kind of arguments they can make in court, the parameters of the sort of arguments that Bradley Manning and his defense can make in terms of defending themselves against these charges.  

What’s a little bit unusual about the hearings that we have been seeing so far is that they have turned into more of a bit of a dress rehearsal for the trial itself and for what might be his sentencing, actually, because his attorneys have already essentially admitted in their court — in their pleadings so far that Bradley Manning is responsible for the leaks.  

So it’s changed from a situation of the trial being did he really do it to, yes, he did, but here are the reasons why we think it doesn’t rise to the level of being a crime.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And in these past couple of weeks, both sides, the prosecution and the defense, have had a few victories, or I guess setbacks, whichever way you want to look at it.  

So let’s start with the prosecution.  What’s been working in their favor?  

ARUN RATH:  Well, what’s worked in their favor is just last night the judge ruled that motive cannot be considered here.  

The fact that Bradley Manning may have leaked these documents in order to do the right thing, that doesn’t really matter.  What matters is, was he guilty of the crime on the merits?  So that was a significant victory for the prosecution.  That can’t be entered into evidence.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, what about the defense?  Is there anything that has worked in their favor over the past few weeks?

ARUN RATH:  Not an awful lot.  There have been a couple of places where they have been given a little bit ground, which I think they can take some heart in.  

One is that they will be able to introduce evidence that Bradley Manning was selective about the sort of information that he leaked, that he specifically tried not to leak information that would damage national security.  The other is that the prosecution has to prove that Bradley Manning knowingly was providing information that he knew would get to the enemy, meaning al-Qaida.

Just leaking it to WikiLeaks is not enough.  It has to be proven that he knew this information would get into al-Qaida’s hands.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, I have been seeing some reports that the prosecution will try to present that some of this information was on Osama bin Laden’s computer, or at least a request for it was.  Why is that important?  

ARUN RATH:  Well, that’s crucial to the biggest charge against Manning, which is aiding the enemy.  

And, again, if they’re trying to show that the evidence that the — these leaked documents got through to al-Qaida, they’re actually introducing this evidence which was gathered apparently from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was killed.  

These are apparently messages that came out from bin Laden asking for specific documents that were leaked in the WikiLeaks trove, specifically documents regarding the war logs of Iraq and Afghanistan.  So they have these apparently from — in bin Laden’s own voice asking for these specific documents.    

HARI SREENIVASAN:  OK.  

And there was also — there were also lots of different intelligence agencies who had done assessments on exactly how damaging this could have been to the United States.  And we’re hearing that that’s not going to be admissible.  

ARUN RATH:  Yes.  And it’s actually sort of a peculiar thing, because earlier the judge had ruled that the defense — Bradley Manning’s defense could have access to these documents.  

These are reports from these intelligence agencies where they assess how much damage was actually done by the release of these documents.  They’re classified, and they’re letting the defense look at them, but then they ruled just last night again they cannot use these — use these documents during the trial.  

They can feature them during the sentencing hearing, but during the trial, they can’t — they’re allowed to look at them, but they can’t bring them into evidence.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  OK.  You have been in court.  You have had the chance to see Bradley Manning a few weeks ago.  What does he look like?  And what impresses you about him?  

ARUN RATH:  I have say, of all the people that have been called to the stand, Bradley Manning came across as the most appealing witness.  

He was, I wouldn’t say charming — it’s not sort of a traditional charisma, but there’s something about the fact that he’s a young, kind of geeky kid.  He’s a little bit awkward.  And he comes across as a sympathetic character.  He was talking about the ways in which he was held in Quantico in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.  

And he talked about this peculiar kind of a classic catch-22 situation, where he would do these things during the day to keep himself scene, like talking to himself in a mirror or dancing in his cell, as a way to break the tedium to keep himself sane, and at the same time these things were used as evidence against him as evidence that he was actually mentally unstable.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right.  And so this hasn’t been a speedy trial.  As we mentioned, he was arrested in 2010.  How long does this go now?  Does this actually start in June?  Is there a possible plea agreement?  

ARUN RATH:  It’s been delayed multiple times.  So, June is looking a bit more realistic because there’s a lot of business that needed to be taken care of that has happened in these hearings.

It’s possible there might be a plea agreement before then.  But this is an issue now in the trial.  They argued yesterday that Bradley Manning has been denied his right to a speedy trial.  Traditionally, under military law, you’re supposed to have a trial within 120 days.  And Bradley Manning has been incarcerated for — we’re in the third year now, over 1,000 days.  

The prosecution says the reason for that is this is an extraordinary case.  We have 250,000 diplomatic cables to go through to assess the damage here, that we need this time to go through it.  But the defense says that this is a miscarriage of justice.  

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Arun Rath of PBS’s “Frontline” and PRI’s “The World,” thanks for joining us.  

ARUN RATH:  Thanks, Hari.