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Bradley Manning Leaked Classified Documents to Spark ‘Debate’ on Foreign Policy

February 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private charged with leaking documents to the website WikiLeaks, pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges, admitting he violated military regulations, but not federal espionage laws. Judy Woodruff interviews Charlie Savage of the New York Times and Arun Rath of FRONTLINE for impressions of Manning.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who is charged with leaking massive amounts of classified material to the Web site WikiLeaks, entered guilty pleas today.

He pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, admitting to violating military regulations, but not federal espionage laws. Manning spoke for more than an hour in the military courtroom, explaining his reasons for leaking classified information.

He said — quote — “I believe that if the general public had access to the information, this could spark a domestic debate as to the role of the military and foreign policy in general.” He added — quote — “I felt I accomplished something that would allow me to have a clear conscience.”

Later in the day, the judge accepted Manning’s pleas. He still faces trial on the remaining charges.

For more now on Manning’s statement, his pleas and what comes next, we are joined by Charlie Savage of The New York Times, who was in the courtroom today, and Arun Rath, who has been covering the Manning case for PBS’ FRONTLINE.

Welcome to both of you to the NewsHour.

Charlie Savage, what exactly, tell us, did Private Manning plead guilty to today?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Pvt. Manning pled guilty to 10 charges that all — basically, he took responsibility for being the person who indeed downloaded massive archives of military reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, videos of airstrikes that killed civilians, dossiers about Guantanamo detainees, and a host of other issues, and sent them to WikiLeaks.

Indeed, he said he took responsibility; it was him who did that. And he pled guilty to 10 specifications of violating military rules and regulations in the course of doing so. What he didn’t do was say that those charges amount to the ferocious charges the government had brought against him, including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act.

The charges that he pled guilty to could expose him to up to 20 years in prison. If the government goes forward with the larger charges that are still on the table, it could be many, many more decades on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arun Rath, help us understand what he didn’t plead guilty to today.

ARUN RATH, FRONTLINE: Well, not pleading guilty to the main — the biggest charge, which is aiding the enemy, that is huge. At least, that’s the one that carries potentially the life sentence for him.

And it seems like what they’re trying to do is kind of peel away the leak from the criminality of it, from trying to say that he was trying to hurt the country. And that was a big part of the statement that he made today justifying what he did.

He made a big point of saying that he didn’t want to release any information that would damage the United States. He said he found information that he thought would be embarrassing, but not damaging. And they’re trying to sort of play that on those terms, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlie Savage, what did you take away from watching from him today as he read his statements, as he gave his explanation? What did you see?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, he was sitting at a — I was watching from the media center, which is sort of a filing center close to the courtroom. It has a closed caption circuit feed. And most of the reporters were there today.

And he was sitting before the judge next to his lawyers. He’s sort of a small person. And he was reading from the — this prepared statement, this lengthy prepared statement that was basically his narrative, his statement at last about why he did what he did. For a few years now, ever since this book, we have about him and his mental troubles, his struggles with his sexuality, his suicidal periods and the abuse that he may have received in prison once he was locked up.

And there’s been all these surrounding conversations. And this was the moment after all these years in which he was able to say, here’s what I did and here’s why. And his message was squarely that he was a whistle-blower, didn’t use that term, but as he marched through the narrative of how he came to download these documents just for his own work as a military analyst in Iraq, and then as he became troubled by what he was seeing, and he thought that what the American people needed to know if these documents came out would spark — would be enlightening, would spark a massive conversation about foreign policy and about what the government is doing.

And so he decided to find a way to bring them to light.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arun Rath, both of you have followed this case for a long time. What — I mean, just listening, reading what he was saying today, what did you take away from that? Were you surprised? Did it — was it consistent with what you have been told until now?

ARUN RATH: For me, it was remarkable actually we’re now hearing Bradley Manning’s voice very loudly and strongly and very articulately.

Charlie mentioned that we had barely heard him talk. Before he testified in November for the first time, the only time I had heard Bradley Manning’s voice was on — in the background on a 911 call where he’s almost hysterical, a 911 call back involving his stepmother.

In court back in November, I have to say he was one of the most — just in terms of a witness, one of the most appealing, articulate witnesses that took the stand. He seemed like a very appealing young man, very articulate. And from what we heard today, what Charlie described, it sounds like he gave a very methodical, thoughtful presentation, almost a manifesto about why he did what he did and why it was morally the correct thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlie Savage, I guess I’m asking you to give us your own judgment on this, but was it an explanation that held together, that made sense to you?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I think it was a very coherent presentation about what he was thinking and why he did it and how he sort of got deeper and deeper into sending this information into WikiLeaks, finding other information that he also wanted to send to WikiLeaks, becoming frustrated when WikiLeaks didn’t publish some of the things that he was sending to them.

I would say this, although, that was also interesting, because he was doing this in the context of a confession. He was pleading guilty. And he was saying, “I am guilty of these charges. They may not be as bad as what the government is trying to charge me with, but they are still charges that could send me away for 20 years.”

And so there was a very interesting exchange throughout with the judge after he finished reading the statement, and there was sort of a break, and they came back, in which she was making sure that he understood what he was doing, and was sort of probing his thinking.

And at one point — or actually several points — she sort of circled back to this, if you’re saying that you had this motivation, you’re doing for this for the greater good, how can you say that and square it with the fact that you’re pleading guilty to crimes that you say you did the wrong thing?

And he several times said back to her, well, look, I understand now that I was a specialist, now a private in the Army, that even — whatever my own judgment was about these documents, there are procedures and processes for bringing things to light or keeping them secret. It’s not up to me. I did not have the authority. It was above my pay grade to just sort of take these massive archives and fling them into the world.

And so he was accepting responsibility and saying it was wrong. At the same time, he was saying, as Arun said, I wasn’t trying to hurt the country. I did not think any of these documents would harm the United States or help a foreign power. I may have been wrong, but what I was trying to do was spark a national debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quickly, Arun, finally to you, there is the trial on the remaining charges that will be coming up. Any sense from today of what we will hear from him then?

ARUN RATH: Well, I think we definitely have seen a very real preview of what the strategy is going to be, which is, as we have said, they’re admitting the crime, essentially, but are going to try to justify it on moral grounds.

So they’re going to give some amount of ground. The argument will not be whether or not Bradley Manning leaked. We know he leaked. And he’s now — the argument is going to be about whether or not he was justified in doing it. Or that’s at least the argument that the defense would like to have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Arun Rath and Charlie Savage, we thank you both.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.

ARUN RATH: Thank you.