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Did Bradley Manning Get a Fair Trial?

Though found not guilty of aiding the enemy, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was convicted on other 19 charges. Former CIA official Jeffrey Smith and Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights join Jeffrey Brown to offer their views on the verdict, the fairness of his charges and the impact for the U.S. government.

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    And we come back to verdict in the court-martial of Army Private Bradley Manning and get reaction from Jeffrey Smith, former general counsel for the CIA and the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's currently in private practice and serves on the Department of Defense legal advisory board. And Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. His organization represents WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in the U.S., and filed a suit to gain access to documents and court briefs in the Manning trial.

    And let me get a response to the verdict from both of you and then we will walk through some of the issues.

    Mr. Ratner, you first. Was justice served?

    MICHAEL RATNER, Center for Constitutional Rights: I think it's probably one of the greatest injustices of our decade.

    Here you have man who who's revealed very important information about war crimes, whose information actually sparked the Arab spring, and you have him being convicted of 20 charges that can carry 134 years. And you have to people who were engaged in the criminality he revealed not being investigated at all.

    Bradley Manning is a whistle-blower. He shouldn't be prosecuted. The people who committed the crimes ought to be prosecuted.


    Jeffrey Smith, your response?

    JEFFREY SMITH, former CIA official: Oh, I see it very differently.

    He betrayed a trust. He had a trust to the United States when he made an oath to serve his country and to not disclose classified information. But more fundamentally he had a trust in his fellow soldiers. The information that he released involved a lot of detail about our activities and Iraq and Afghanistan.

    To be sure, some of it was terrible, the machine gunning of the civilians. That should never have happened. But he betrayed his trust to soldiers and put their lives at risk. And I think it was a fair trial and I believe he deserves to be punished.


    Mr. Ratner, pick up on the trial itself. Was it your sense, as much as you could tell, that he received a fair trial?


    Well, I wouldn't really call it a fair trial. We had a year until we could get access to the information. I sat there. It was like Plato's Cave. You couldn't tell what was going on. It took us a year of litigation to get that out.

    I think he was overcharged tremendously, aiding the enemy, which, of course, he was acquitted on, which was the one good part of the trial. But to charge a whistle-blower with espionage, that's nonsensical. It's the Obama administration hitting truth-tellers with a sledgehammer. I don't think that's fair at all.

    As far as the oath issue, when you see something that is a greater crime, whether it's Vietnam in the My Lai massacre or whether it's what Bradley Manning saw, I think you have a higher duty to disclose criminality when you see it, rather than go along with it. Bradley Manning is a hero for doing that.


    Well, Mr. Smith, of course, since many of the facts weren't in dispute here, it became exactly how one sees Bradley Manning, right?


    I think it — not quite. I think the judge handled it well. He was a soldier. He had promised not to disclose classified information.

    There were 700,000 documents. Not all of those were crimes. The vast majority of them were routine reports, diplomatic exchanges, details about U.S. operations. I think what he did put American soldiers at risk. It caused great harm. And this is not the My Lai massacre. It's 700,000 documents that caused great harm.


    And what is your sense of the aiding the enemy charge, which was much in dispute, of course?


    I think — again, I think judge handled that well. The government may have overreached a little bit in its charge, but she let the evidence be presented at trial and she then found him not guilty. I think she handled it very well.


    Mr. Ratner, you're saying not only was that overreaching, but you think the espionage — using the Espionage Act was as well?


    Two points I want to make.

    One is Mr. Smith said and talked about harm. There was no evidence of harm that came out at the trial. They never proved that. The State Department or others have said that there was no genuine harm here when they were pushed on it, so let's get rid of that.

    Clearly, aiding the enemy was a ridiculous charge. But charging whistle-blowers with espionage is also nonsensical. It's a World War I statute. It makes no sense. I thought — I don't think he should have been charged at all. But hitting them with six charges of espionage, five of which he was convicted, when he's a whistle-blower, is really overreaching and it's what I call a sledgehammer that the Obama administration seems to be taking to whistle-blowers and journalists as well.


    You want to — there are a number of things to pick up on here, but one was the facts of the impact, I mean.


    The impact, I think, was real.

    I began life as an infantry officer. And the idea that details, reports of combat operations that the enemy was able to pick up and change their tactics on, I can only imagine the reaction of young officers out there trying to accomplish their mission and protect their soldiers' lives when this information was out there.

    And the fact that there was no harm, the government did, I think, establish in the course of the trial certainly enough harm to justify a conviction. He is charged with espionage because that's the one statute we have in the federal system that punishes the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, including too the press. It's not classical espionage, in the sense that you're selling secrets to another government for money, but it's the unauthorized disclosure.

    So it's a bit of a misnomer to complain that he was charged with espionage.


    Well, Mr. Ratner, where does this leave things, do you think, vis-a-vis impact on future leakers or potential whistle-blowers, impact on journalists investigating stories like this?


    Well, two things.

    One is, in terms of my client Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, that was spread throughout the trial. They were trying to really say that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange were co-conspirators with Bradley Manning, he was taking orders from them. They tried to drag him through the mud on it. None of it was proven.

    What I think it tells us is that not only are whistle-blowers, but journalists are in jeopardy as well, as we saw with the case of Rosen at FOX News, when they charged him with — or at least had an affidavit and a search warrant saying he was a co-conspirator in an espionage case.

    Similarly, recently, with The New York Times reporter James Risen when the court said the — he's — the crime couldn't have happened without him working with the whistle-blower. So I think we're seeing an assault that Bradley Manning's trial represents. When you charge someone who is giving the truth out to us with five counts or six counts of espionage, convict him of five, and keep everything in this government secret that they can and don't actually look at their own criminality.

    A number of cases I have brought to try to get responsibility for torture all dismissed on secrecy — we need whistle-blowers right now more than ever. I think the government is trying to chill whistle-blowers. That's clear, but it doesn't seem to be working because even after Bradley Manning was indicted, you saw Ed Snowden come out with his revelations.


    What do you think, Jeffrey Smith, will be the impact of this verdict?


    It's hard to know.

    Mr. Ratner suggests that the government seems to have no legitimate secrets to keep. It clearly does. And I have seen in my own personal life direct harm from leaks of classified information. There are a number of issues that will come out. One is both with respect to Private Manning and Mr. Snowden. The government now is constraining the amount of information that's shared within the government.

    So prior to 9/11 — or after 9/11, the government was criticized for not being able to connect the dots because we didn't share information within the government. When we share information, we find that irresponsible young men for whatever bizarre purposes disclose it. So now there's going to be some shutdown in the sharing of information, which will also have adverse consequences to our national security.


    All right, Jeffrey Smith, Michael Ratner, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you for having me.