The military trial of Army whistleblower Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Maryland, began Monday with the defense and prosecution presenting starkly contrasting accounts. Manning is accused of giving a cache of diplomatic cables and government documents to WikiLeaks in the largest leak of state secrets in U.S. history. The military prosecutor, Captain Joe Morrow, accused Manning of “dumping” hundreds of thousands of documents “into the lap of the enemy,” and painted a picture of close ties between Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, said Manning wanted to reveal the human cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “He believed [the leaked] information showed how we value human life,” Coombs said. “He was troubled by that. He believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled.” We’re joined by Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a lawyer to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Ratner attended the opening session of Manning’s trial.
AARON MATÉ: The military trial of Army whistleblower Bradley Manning is underway. Manning is accused of providing more than 700,000 secret U.S. government documents and cables to WikiLeaks, the largest disclosure of state secrets in U.S. history. Manning faces more than 20 charges, including violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy. He has already pled guilty to 10 lesser charges of misusing classified material.
The trial began Monday with the defense and prosecution presenting starkly contrasting accounts. Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, said Manning wanted to reveal the human costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Coombs said, quote, “[Bradley Manning] believed this information showed how we value human life. He was troubled by that. He believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled.”
AMY GOODMAN: Army prosecutor Captain Joe Morrow accused Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy, including Osama Bin Laden, who allegedly accessed some of the classified State Department cables after they were published by the website WikiLeaks. Morrow said, quote, “This is a case about a soldier who systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of classified documents and dumped them onto the Internet, into the hands of the enemy—material he knew, based on his training, would put the lives of fellow soldiers at risk,” he said.
Coombs responded by arguing that Manning was selective, saying, quote, “He had access to literally hundreds of millions of documents as an all-source analyst, and these were the documents that he released. And he released these documents because he was hoping to make the world a better place,” he said.
The trial is expected to run to the end of August. Supporters of Bradley Manning gathered outside Fort Meade as the trial opened.
BROOKS BALLENGER: Bradley Manning did a very courageous thing. He told the American people and the world about what was going on in Afghanistan and about misinformation and distortions that were used to convince people that we should be in this war and that it was a just war and that we were helping the Afghan people, and a bunch of other misdeeds that the U.S. was doing. And I think that was a service to the country.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bradley Manning supporter Brooks Ballenger.
To talk more about the first day of the trial and its implications, we’re joined by Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. He was there yesterday at the opening session of Bradley Manning’s trial at Fort Meade.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Michael. Describe the scene yesterday. This is when the defense and the prosecution lays out their opening arguments.
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, it’s the third time, really, that I’ve been utterly devastated by being in that courtroom. First was when Bradley talked about his torture; secondly, when he talked about why he leaked the documents and gave his political reasons. And this time, the scene was—imagine a small antiseptic-looking courtroom. You have Bradley Manning sitting at the table between very large people, including his lawyer, looking very diminutive, but very dignified. And you have, you know, 16 of us in the courtroom plus a bunch of prosecutors and a few sketch artists and press. And they open—the government opens with a slide show. And the slide show is about how we are going to convince the court—it’s only a judge trial—that Bradley Manning aided the enemy, just dumped millions of documents, has nothing good to say about him, and we’re going to put him away for life. I mean, they didn’t say that, but that’s what happens if he’s convicted.
So your first impression of that is one—he’s already pleaded guilty to 20 years—that he could get 20 years for. So, what are they doing? You know, if you saw this in a country the U.S. claims is a dictatorship, and you saw a truth teller getting up and saying, “This is what my country is doing,” and then the country gave him 20 years, and then they went ahead and wanted to put him in life, people would be screaming. And people ought to be screaming about this.
AMY GOODMAN: Couldn’t he actually face the death penalty?
MICHAEL RATNER: Yes, one of the charges, the aiding the enemy charge, which we can talk about, carries a death penalty. The prosecutor has said they’re not going to ask for the death penalty, but I think it’s still open to the judge to give him the death penalty. This is really serious, and it’s outrageous. I mean, it’s really hitting Bradley in a way that he should just not be hit, apart from the bigger issue of the people that we should be looking at are the people who committed the war crimes that Bradley Manning exposed. That’s where the accountability should come in here, not about a soldier who acted on his conscience and acted because he wanted to have the American people see what America is doing. So, this was—I mean, it was almost—it would be surreal. It looked like—you know, I’d love it to have not really been happening in front of me, but there it was, these slides going across.
And in addition to what’s going to happen to Bradley Manning because of this—I hope it doesn’t, but the life sentence—the aiding the enemy charge, which we mentioned here, what they’re really saying in that is that by giving documents to WikiLeaks, a publisher—or could have been the New York Post or The New York Times, somebody somewhere in the world who’s an enemy of the United States is going to read those documents, and therefore a soldier who is a whistleblower is automatically aiding the enemy if he talks to you, if he talks to the press anywhere. That’s aiding the enemy, according to our government. That’s really an incredibly outrageous reading of the statute. The judge has gone a little bit toward requiring the government to prove a little more. But I think you have to have intent to aid the enemy. But the government isn’t saying that at all. So, the government’s conception, which you opened the show with, that he dumped millions of documents, was just belied, really, by what Coombs said.
One little detail, which I like, which shows where Bradley Manning was coming from, he had a dog tag on—not then, but when he was in the military in Iraq—and on the back of the dog tag, it had the word “humanist” stamped on it. This is the Bradley Manning that this world and this country ought to care about. So, one danger is to Bradley Manning. A second one is to the idea that we’re ever going to have a whistleblower again who talks to the media. Even if a whistleblower says something like, “I’m not getting good body armor in Iraq,” which actually happened with Rumsfeld—not a whistleblower, just a soldier—that soldier could be arguably aiding the enemy. And a third aspect of this trial that’s really serious—
AMY GOODMAN: Because he could be letting—that soldier, who says, “We’re not getting good body armor,” could be letting the enemy know that they are vulnerable, because they don’t have good enough body armor.
MICHAEL RATNER: That’s exactly right, Amy. So this happens all the time.
And a third aspect, of course, that I was sitting there in shock by, was laced throughout this proceeding was Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. They first claimed that he was giving direction to Bradley Manning. Then they claimed that Bradley Manning was using his wanted list, the so-called WikiLeaks wanted list, which was actually put together not by WikiLeaks, but by NGOs and human rights organizations, was—
AMY GOODMAN: Meaning? What was the wanted list?
MICHAEL RATNER: The wanted list is the list of documents that WikiLeaks had up that said these are the documents that might be interesting—I don’t recall the exact words—that would be interesting to reveal to the public. And that list was put together by human rights groups, NGOs, put on the WikiLeaks website. So a lot of this was threaded through with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And that aspect was fascinating, because it was the third point that I think is really important, is they’re trying to get journalists in as co-conspirators or aiding and abetting their sources. They started with Julian Assange. This trial is, in fact, in part, perhaps a large part, about getting journalists, like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And I know you’ve discussed it here, when Rosen—when James Rosen of Fox—the government looked at James Rosen’s phone records, and they did it with an affidavit that said he is a co-conspirator or an aider and abettor of his source. So we’re talking about—
AMY GOODMAN: James Rosen is the Fox reporter who got information about North Korea, and the government went after him, got his—apparently got a subpoena for his emails, and apparently Eric Holder himself, the attorney general, approved the investigation of him.
MICHAEL RATNER: That’s correct. And the key way they got it was by saying he is a co-conspirator or aider and abettor of his source. So you have here Fox News, which was ready to bury Julian Assange as a, quote, “co-conspirator” or solicitor, or whatever they wanted to call him, now has one of their own. So, hopefully, it will make Fox and other media understand there is a major attack on truth tellers, on journalists, and this trial really is—encapsulates that. The sad part is there’s a human being at the center of this, a human being who David Coombs, his lawyer, pointed out not only wore a humanist dog tag, but didn’t do a dump here.
This was not a dump. He could—he had access to hundreds of millions of documents, as you said in the opening to this show. He could have dumped, if he was going to dump, millions of documents, but that’s not what he did. What he did was he selectively looked at documents, and he did two things. These are going to—these are things that my conscience bothers me about, when we’re murdering and killing people and committing war crimes. And, secondly, he made sure that those were documents that were not going to harm U.S. forces. So when you look at the Iraq War Logs, which are the daily logs of what happens in the field, all those are—you know, within 72 hours, they’re not really relevant anymore. And that’s the kind of material. He wanted to ensure that this was not going to harm our troops, but open the discussion in the United States. This truth teller is who the United States decides they’re not just going to take the 20 years, they’re going to put in jail for life. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t the Pentagon offered to—I mean, that WikiLeaks offered the Pentagon to vet the documents before they released them, if it was going to endanger anyone, and they refused?
MICHAEL RATNER: Yes, yes. WikiLeaks went to the Pentagon and said, “We’re going to release these documents.” This was the diplomatic cables, in particular. Actually, it may have been more than that. “And can you vet them?” And they refused. So, but there was no—nobody has ever alleged here there was any real harm to U.S. soldiers, to informants, etc. That’s never been a claim. There’s no blood on the hands of either of these—either Julian Assange or WikiLeaks.
AARON MATÉ: Michael, on the issue of aiding the enemy, the prosecutor cited the fact that Manning read a CIA memo that warned that al-Qaeda was possibly using WikiLeaks. And they’re arguing or suggesting that that means that Manning should have been aware that his actions could have endangered the U.S.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. I mean, first of all, that memo, which is interesting, that’s one that Manning himself is alleged—that’s one of the charges against Manning, was actually looking at that memo. It was a memo prepared by the CIA early on about the dangers of WikiLeaks. But—so they’re accusing him of basically reading a memo that he hacked into. But that could have been said about any newspaper. The Washington Post and The New York Times, The New York Times in particular, published lots of cables from WikiLeaks, but they’re not saying that, you know, WikiLeaks is—they’re not saying that The New York Times is therefore a co-conspirator of Bradley Manning, and they’re not saying that giving it to The New York Times was aiding the enemy. They’re saying WikiLeaks. But although in open court—it’s interesting—they did say that “What if this had been The New York Times in the middle between Bradley Manning and, quote, 'the enemy,' al-Qaeda? Would he still be accused of aiding the enemy?” And the answer is yes. And that shows you the danger they’re talking about here. If a soldier gives to the press, that soldier can be accused of aiding the enemy. I should say that what’s happened with both Bradley, the press, Julian Assange—the reason Julian Assange is in that embassy is he was given—granted political asylum because of this very fact, because the Ecuadorean government saw that there is an attack on free press in the United States, and that is why he was given asylum. And that’s what this trial is.
You know, we can talk about its effect broadly, but really, the effect on Bradley Manning is so outrageous and so disgusting, of this young man who, at 22 years old, acts on his conscience and who should be a hero, and yet they are going for his last pound of flesh. You know, Bradley Manning should be given time served and gotten out of there, and then every—
AMY GOODMAN: He has served three years now.
MICHAEL RATNER: Three years. And then, every student in this country ought to read the reasons why he acted on his conscience, and not all this junk that the U.S. prosecutor is putting in there.
AARON MATÉ: Well, on Monday, his attorney cited this incident where he’s in his intelligence compound in Iraq, and his colleagues celebrate when they find out that U.S. soldiers had been spared in a bombing, but when they find out that an Iraqi victim has died, it’s only Manning that feels hurt.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. They continued to celebrate. It was on Christmas Eve. Some kind of improvised explosive device attacks a U.S. convoy. And everybody is really upset in Bradley Manning’s group, because it might be some of their friends who were killed. When they find out none of their friends are killed, they’re all celebrating. It next comes back that the car that was in front of the convoy, which was an Iraqi car, moved away, because whenever an American convoy comes by—this is also another story about Iraq—they just get off the road, because they just go through everything they see. That explosive device injured five people in the car and killed one of them, I think two adults and three children. One person was killed. And that was an incident that Coombs, Bradley Manning’s attorney, pointed to as being really important in how he formed his desire to want to expose American crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, because he said everybody just continued to celebrate that no Americans were killed, but what about these five injured Iraqis, one of whom was killed?
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, we spoke to WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s been holed up for 11 months to avoid extradition to Sweden. Assange fears that if he is sent to Sweden, he will then be extradited to the United States, where he fears a grand jury has secretly indicted him. He talked about the Bradley Manning case and about the two dozen witnesses set to testify in secret at Bradley Manning’s trial.
JULIAN ASSANGE: It’s a furtherance of what we’ve been seeing, as this new pyramidical structure of centralized intelligence and military power continues to gain financial and political capital. It is advancing the frontiers to the degree where it is now conducting extensive secret trials. The same thing has been introduced here in the U.K. But we all know that without open justice, there is no justice at all. Justice must be seen to be done. Judges must themselves be on trial before the public as they conduct trials. We are all aware of the terrible abuses in the past that have come about as a result of secret star chambers. But nonetheless, the neo-military-industrial complex has gained enough political power where it is able to—or at least it thinks that it is able to go back to this earlier depraved time.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Julian Assange, and he’s speaking in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Also, behind him is a still taken from the video that Bradley Manning released to WikiLeaks, that WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder,” the still of the video from July 12, 2007, where an Apache helicopter actually took this video and showed the U.S. military opening fire on a group of men in New Baghdad, a part of Baghdad, killing 12 of them, including two Reuters employees—a reporter, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh.
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, that video wasn’t even classified. That was not—and when he saw it, it was being discussed in Bradley Manning’s unit, what it was. And you saw these pictures of what Bradley Manning described as bloodlust of the people in the helicopter, and then firing on the actual van that was coming to rescue or pick up the wounded, and there were children in the van who were then wounded. I mean, it’s still—I watch it many times. It’s still one of the most blood-chilling videos you can watch. And it wasn’t even classified, but the U.S. wasn’t disclosing it. Why? Because they don’t want, I think, American people to know the bloodlust with which we’re carrying out wars and killing people, killing camera people, killing journalists, shooting at children. And then, basically, one of the helicopter pilots says, you know, “Well, they shouldn’t have brought their children with them.” This is a car that’s trying to rescue people right on the road, who he sees blood in front of him. It’s really disgusting.
But this is why this video surfaced, was because of Bradley Manning. And let’s never forget that. That was the beginning of maybe the unraveling of the U.S. war in Iraq. You know, the U.S. ultimately decided to pull most of its troops out of Iraq, in part because of the work of Bradley Manning, because it exposed the killings and that the U.S. only wanted immunity. And after these videos and after these documents, the U.S.—the Iraqi government said, “We’re not immunizing your troops.” So, these documents that Bradley Manning exposed, apart from the Arab Spring, which it helped bring on, these documents helped force the U.S. out of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: The government said that Bradley Manning helped to edit this video, is that right?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, you know, let’s say—what we saw here was an opening. The government makes lots of assertions in an opening. The question is: What can they prove? And so far, I am not convinced at all that they can prove a lot of what they’ve said. I don’t think they can prove necessarily at all that he edited a video. I’ve never seen any evidence about that. I don’t think that they can prove that he took direction from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I think that that is just thrown in there, really, to terrify journalists about working with sources and to continue to smear WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and make them, along with Bradley Manning, enemies of the United States.
AARON MATÉ: Michael, what about what they don’t have to prove? For example, they don’t have to prove that these releases actually helped the enemy.
MICHAEL RATNER: No, no, it’s a serious—the Espionage Act is serious. There are six charges under the Espionage Act. And all they have to prove is that they relate to the national defense and they could have harmed. Or, let’s—we’re talking about two things. And that they could have harmed the United States. That’s the Espionage Act. They don’t have to actually prove they harmed the United States. The Aiding the Enemy Act, again, they don’t have to prove that it actually aided the enemy. They don’t even have to prove that he passed classified material to the enemy or that he intended to aid the enemy. If you’re the enemy and I give you a paper clip, I’m considered to be aiding the enemy because I have given you something material that can help you. It’s an incredibly broad statute.
My view is, I don’t know whether he’ll be convicted of this by this judge or not, but this charge will never hold up. The way they’re charging it is a change in the law. It’s really going to squash any soldier saying anything to the press, whether it’s about bad body armor or that they’re not getting good enough food—anything. And I just don’t—I just don’t think it can be upheld. But in this context, in this country right now, considering what we saw in that courtroom yesterday, I mean, they are all out for just getting rid of dissent in the military, making journalists terrified, and making sources utterly terrified to talk to any journalist.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, there’s a piece in The New York Times today, “Britain and Ecuador May Discuss Assange Status.” You’re the lawyer for Julian Assange. The foreign minister of Ecuador is scheduled to travel to London this month and has offered to meet with the British government. Last week, Reuters said that the Ecuadorean government is preparing a document in which it would argue that Britain is legally obliged to give Assange permission to travel to South America. You’re his lawyer. What is the story?
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, Minister Patiño is coming a few days before June 19th, which is the one-year anniversary of Julian Assange being in that embassy. Look, we have to get him out of that embassy and get him a safe passage to Ecuador. That’s crucial. He’s been given political asylum by the Ecuadoreans. To me, it is outrageous that the British aren’t letting him exercise his political asylum that he’s entitled to and that no other country is permitted to interfere with. And he should be allowed to get on a plane and get to Ecuador. So far, the British have had some meetings, apparently, over the year with Patiño, and maybe others. Let’s hope that there is a meeting and that it’s fruitful, and Julian Assange can get back—well, not get back to. WikiLeaks has already, this year, even while he’s been in that embassy, you know, releasing huge numbers of documents, from the Kissinger files to the Syria emails, Stratfor emails, etc. But let’s hope that we can get Julian not just mental freedom, but physical freedom, as well, in Ecuador.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, is there any more proof that there is a sealed indictment against Julian Assange in this country?
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I think people who—you know, I remember—yeah, the other day I was on an Australian TV show, and they said, well, you know, their minister, Carr, whatever he does over there, says there’s no charges against Julian and all this kind of stuff. I just said, “Well, Carr is an ostrich. You have to be an ostrich to not think that there’s charges against Julian Assange.” I mean, there’s been the grand jury, subpoenaing the witnesses. The State Department said two months ago, “We’re continuing our investigation.” And if you look at that trial yesterday in the Bradley Manning case, it was threaded—threaded—with trying to prove that Julian Assange is somehow different than The New York Times, because he was working like this with Bradley Manning. So, that’s the government’s position. I would be pretty surprised if there wasn’t an indictment against Julian Assange already.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, returned last night from attending the opening day of the trial of Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Maryland.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Ralph Nader. Stay with us.