UPDATE – 11:45 PM EST According to statement by defense, “PFC Manning is not pleading guilty to the specifications as charged by the Government. Rather, PFC Manning is attempting to accept responsibility for offenses that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses. The Court will consider whether this is a permissible plea.” I’ve put a strike through “all charged” because I do not feel it appropriately reflects what Manning did with the notice of plea. He is through the notice acknowledging he provided information to WikiLeaks but not that he provided all the charged information.
At Fort Meade, Maryland, during a motion hearing in Pfc. Bradley Manning’s court martial, his defense attorney David Coombs told the court Manning had submitted a plea notice indicating he would accept general responsibility for providing
all charged information to WikiLeaks. The notice was the beginning of a process that could greatly simplify the upcoming trial proceedings in February.
Manning did not plead guilty to the charged offenses in the plea notice. However, significantly, he did indicate with this notice that he is willing to admit to the fact that the act of providing information to WikiLeaks did occur or that the government has evidence that would prove he did commit the act and so he is willing to plea to it.
The notice was a plea to lesser-included offenses—charges with different elements that the judge could agree upon if there is no evidence for the more severe charges. Pleading to lesser-included offenses makes it possible to not plea to committing offenses under the Espionage Act or Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Importantly, he can plead guilty without accepting the government’s charge that he “aided the enemy” or “exceeded authorized access” on his computer
This is not a plea bargain with the government. Manning’s defense did not go to the government and inform them that he wanted to accept general responsibility. Therefore, it is up to the judge to decide whether to accept the plea notice.
As far as sentencing goes, the lesser included offenses would likely come with a less severe punishment (although the charge of “aiding the enemy,” which if convicted could lead to him be sentenced to life without parole, would still be in play.
What this does for the trial, if the plea is accepted, is it cuts back on the physical evidence and the witnesses that the government may need to call to make a case. It also cuts back on the arguments that would need to be made.
If any of this was accepted—and nothing is firmly in stone yet, the government would have to choose how to proceed by deciding how to handle the refusal to plea to the federal statutory charges under the Espionage Act or the CFAA.
Again, he did not plead guilty. This is all part of the process. The next step is the judge accepts or rejects the plea. If accepted, the government has to decide how it would like to handle the judge’s decision.