As I type these lines, on June 3, 2013, Private First Class Bradley Edward Manning is being tried in a sequestered room at Fort Meade, Maryland, for the alleged crime of telling the truth. The court martial of the most prominent political prisoner in modern US history has now, finally, begun.
It has been three years. Bradley Manning, then 22 years old, was arrested in Baghdad on May 26, 2010. He was shipped to Kuwait, placed into a cage, and kept in the sweltering heat of Camp Arifjan.
“For me, I stopped keeping track,” he told the court last November. “I didn’t know whether night was day or day was night. And my world became very, very small. It became these cages… I remember thinking I’m going to die.”
After protests from his lawyers, Bradley Manning was then transferred to a brig at a US Marine Corps Base in Quantico, VA, where – infamously – he was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of his captors – a formal finding by the UN. Isolated in a tiny cell for twenty-three out of twenty-four hours a day, he was deprived of his glasses, sleep, blankets and clothes, and prevented from exercising. All of this – it has been determined by a military judge – “punished” him before he had even stood trial.
“Brad’s treatment at Quantico will forever be etched, I believe, in our nation’s history, as a disgraceful moment in time” said his lawyer, David Coombs. “Not only was it stupid and counterproductive, it was criminal.”
The United States was, in theory, a nation of laws. But it is no longer a nation of laws for Bradley Manning.
When the abuse of Bradley Manning became a scandal reaching all the way to the President of the United States and Hillary Clinton’s spokesman resigned to register his dissent over Mr. Manning’s treatment, an attempt was made to make the problem less visible. Bradley Manning was transferred to the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
He has waited in prison for three years for a trial – 986 days longer than the legal maximum – because for three years the prosecution has dragged its feet and obstructed the court, denied the defense access to evidence and abused official secrecy. This is simply illegal – all defendants are constitutionally entitled to a speedy trial – but the transgression has been acknowledged and then overlooked.
Against all of this, it would be tempting to look on the eventual commencement of his trial as a mercy. But that is hard to do.
We no longer need to comprehend the “Kafkaesque” through the lens of fiction or allegory. It has left the pages and lives among us, stalking our best and brightest. It is fair to call what is happening to Bradley Manning a “show trial”. Those invested in what is called the “US military justice system” feel obliged to defend what is going on, but the rest of us are free to describe this travesty for what it is. No serious commentator has any confidence in a benign outcome. The pretrial hearings have comprehensively eliminated any meaningful uncertainty, inflicting pre-emptive bans on every defense argument that had any chance of success.
Bradley Manning may not give evidence as to his stated intent (exposing war crimes and their context), nor may he present any witness or document that shows that no harm resulted from his actions. Imagine you were put on trial for murder. In Bradley Manning’s court, you would be banned from showing that it was a matter of self-defence, because any argument or evidence as to intent is banned. You would not be able to show that the ’victim’ is, in fact, still alive, because that would be evidence as to the lack of harm.
But of course. Did you forget whose show it is?
The government has prepared for a good show. The trial is to proceed for twelve straight weeks: a fully choreographed extravaganza, with a 141-strong cast of prosecution witnesses. The defense was denied permission to call all but a handful of witnesses. Three weeks ago, in closed session, the court actually held a rehearsal. Even experts on military law have called this unprecedented.
Bradley Manning’s conviction is already written into the script. The commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, Barack Obama, spoiled the plot for all of us when he pronounced Bradley Manning guilty two years ago. “He broke the law,” President Obama stated, when asked on camera at a fundraiser about his position on Mr. Manning. In a civilized society, such a prejudicial statement alone would have resulted in a mistrial.
To convict Bradley Manning, it will be necessary for the US government to conceal crucial parts of his trial. Key portions of the trial are to be conducted in secrecy: 24 prosecution witnesses will give secret testimony in closed session, permitting the judge to claim that secret evidence justifies her decision. But closed justice is no justice at all.
What cannot be shrouded in secrecy will be hidden through obfuscation. The remote situation of the courtroom, the arbitrary and discretionary restrictions on access for journalists, and the deliberate complexity and scale of the case are all designed to drive fact-hungry reporters into the arms of official military PR men, who mill around the Fort Meade press room like over-eager sales assistants. The management of Bradley Manning’s case will not stop at the limits of the courtroom. It has already been revealed that the Pentagon is closely monitoring press coverage and social media discussions on the case.
This is not justice; never could this be justice. The verdict was ordained long ago. Its function is not to determine questions such as guilt or innocence, or truth or falsehood. It is a public relations exercise, designed to provide the government with an alibi for posterity. It is a show of wasteful vengeance; a theatrical warning to people of conscience.
The alleged act in respect of which Bradley Manning is charged is an act of great conscience – the single most important disclosure of subjugated history, ever. There is not a political system anywhere on the earth that has not seen light as a result. In court, in February, Bradley Manning said that he wanted to expose injustice, and to provoke worldwide debate and reform. Bradley Manning is accused of being a whistleblower, a good man, who cared for others and who followed higher orders. Bradley Manning is effectively accused of conspiracy to commit journalism.
But this is not the language the prosecution uses. The most serious charge against Bradley Manning is that he “aided the enemy” – a capital offence that should require the greatest gravity, but here the US government laughs at the world, to breathe life into a phantom. The government argues that Bradley Manning communicated with a media organization, WikiLeaks, who communicated to the public. It also argues that al-Qaeda (who else) is a member of the public. Hence, it argues that Bradley Manning communicated “indirectly” with al-Qaeda, a formally declared US “enemy”, and therefore that Bradley Manning communicated with “the enemy”.
But what about “aiding” in that most serious charge, “aiding the enemy”? Don’t forget that this is a show trial. The court has banned any evidence of intent. The court has banned any evidence of the outcome, the lack of harm, the lack of any victim. It has ruled that the government doesn’t need to show that any “aiding” occurred and the prosecution doesn’t claim it did. The judge has stated that it is enough for the prosecution to show that al-Qaeda, like the rest of the world, reads WikiLeaks.
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people,” wrote John Adams, “who have a right and a desire to know.”
When communicating with the press is “aiding the enemy” it is the “general knowledge among the people” itself which has become criminal. Just as Bradley Manning is condemned, so too is that spirit of liberty in which America was founded.
In the end it is not Bradley Manning who is on trial. His trial ended long ago. The defendant now, and for the next 12 weeks, is the United States. A runaway military, whose misdeeds have been laid bare, and a secretive government at war with the public. They sit in the docks. We are called to serve as jurists. We must not turn away.