The lawyer for accused WikiLeaks collaborator Bradley Manning suggested Monday that President Barack Obama's position on protecting government whistleblowers is hypocritical.
Obama put his signature on a new law designed to stiffen protections for whistleblowers on Nov. 27. "As President Obama was signing this bill into law, Brad and I were in a courtroom," Manning's defense attorney, David E. Coombs, said Monday at the All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., in his first public appearance since taking the case more than two years ago. "How can you reconcile the two? I don't know the answer to that question."
Manning, 24, is the Army private who allegedly gave WikiLeaks thousands of classified diplomatic cables about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, along with videos of two deadly airstrikes that killed non-combatants. When revealed by the controversial whistleblower website WikiLeaks, the documents sent diplomatic shockwaves that reverberated across the world.
Manning was eventually arrested by the Army, and he has now been charged with a variety of offenses, including "aiding the enemy," which could result in a life sentence.
At the heart of the controversy over Manning is whether his alleged actions represented those of a whistleblower uncovering serious government misdeeds -- or of a soldier who was breaking the law.
Coombs believes Manning should be treated as a hero. Referring to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, a prominent Manning supporter, Coombs said "history has been the ultimate judge of his courage and sacrifice."
"History has judged him well," he continued. "I hope that history will judge Private First Class Bradley Manning in a similar light."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The Obama administration has filed more charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 against government officials accused of leaking information to reporters than all of the administrations of Obama's predecessors combined. The most serious charge Manning is facing is that he "aided the enemy," because according to the administration, he had the knowledge that releasing secret cables to the public could lead to information in the hands of al-Qaeda.
By that logic, Coombs argued, anyone who leaks information of government misdeeds to the press could be slapped with similar charges, with severe chilling effects on freedom of expression.
"If you can possibly aid the enemy by giving information to the press, with no intent that that information land in the hands of the enemy, and by that mere action alone you can have been found to have aided the enemy, that's a scary proposition," he said. "That would silence a lot of critics of our government."
Manning was on the stand last week in a hearing over what his defense alleges were unlawful pretrial punishments imposed on him at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va. Manning's testimony on Thursday was the first time he has been heard from in public since 2010.
Manning, Coombs said, is pleased to finally have his day in court.
"I can tell you that he is very excited about having his case go forward in the process now," Coombs said in response to a question about his client's mental state. "It's been a long time. And he's also at this point very encouraged by the way the proceedings are going. I think he feels good about his defense, at least I hope he does. And at this point I believe he is confident that things will hopefully turn out okay for him."