Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of the biggest unauthorised disclosure of state secrets in US history, has pleaded guilty to being the source of the leak, telling a military court that he passed the information to a whistleblowing website because he believed the American people had a right to know the "true costs of war".
At a pre-trial hearing on a Maryland military base, Manning, 25, who faces spending the rest of his life in military custody, read out a 35-page statement in which he gave an impassioned account of his motives for transmitting classified documents and videos he had obtained while working as an intelligence analyst outside Baghdad.
Sitting at the defence bench in a hushed courtroom, Manning said he was sickened by the apparent "bloodlust" of a helicopter crew involved in an attack on a group in Baghdad that turned out to include Reuters correspondents and children.
He believed the Afghan and Iraq war logs published by the WikiLeaks website, initially in association with a consortium of international media organisations that included the Guardian, were "among the more significant documents of our time revealing the true costs of war". The decision to pass the classified information to a public website was motivated, he told the court, by his depression about the state of military conflict in which the US was mired.
Manning said: "We were obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and ignoring goals and missions. I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general [that] might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counter-terrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day."
In a highly unusual move for a defendant in such a serious criminal prosecution, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges out of his own volition – not as part of a plea bargain with the prosecution. He admitted to having possessed and willfully communicated to an unauthorised person – probably Julian Assange – all the main elements of the WikiLeaks disclosure.
That covered the so-called "Collateral Murder" video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq; some US diplomatic cables including one of the early WikiLeaks publications the Reykjavik cable; portions of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs; some of the files on detainees in Guantánamo; and two intelligence memos.
The charges to which the soldier pleaded guilty carry a two-year maximum sentence each, committing Manning to a possible upper limit of 20 years in military prison.
But the plea does not avoid a long and complex trial for the soldier, that is currently scheduled to begin on 3 June. Manning pleaded not guilty to 12 counts which relate to the major offences of which he is accused by the US government.
Specifically, he denied he had been involved in "aiding the enemy" – the idea that he knowingly gave help to al-Qaida and caused secret intelligence to be published on the internet, aware that by doing so it would become available to the enemy.
As he read his statement, Manning was flanked by his civilian lawyer, David Coombs, on one side and two military defence lawyers on the other. Wearing full uniform, the soldier read out the document at high speed, occasionally stumbling over the words and at other points laughing at his own comments.
He recounted how he had first become aware of WikiLeaks in 2009. He was particularly impressed by its release in November that year of more than 500,000 text messages sent on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He had originally copied the war logs as a good housekeeping measure to have quick access to the information. But the more he read into the data, he said, the more he was concerned about what it was uncovering.
He decided to take a copy of the data on a memory stick when he went back from Iraq to the US on leave in January 2010. There, having failed to interest the Washington Post and the New York Times in the stash of information, he turned to WikiLeaks.
March 2, 2013
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