WASHINGTON -- Three years ago the transparency website WikiLeaks released a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down Reuters journalists on a Baghdad street.
It was just one chilling public revelation from a cache of 700,000 documents a young Army private first class named Bradley Manning gave the site. Soon after would follow sobering field reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and candid diplomatic cables from the U.S. Department of State.
To Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Manning is "an embodiment of what sort of person I would like to be." An activist as well as a politician, she helped edit the so-called "Collateral Murder" gun cam video.
"I would like to have the same courage, the same sense of justice, the same integrity as Bradley Manning," she said. "He in my opinion is in the exact category as [Pentagon Papers whistle-blower] Daniel Ellsberg and other fighters for freedom of expression."
On Monday, Manning's trial begins. The 25-year-old faces life in prison for his leaks. The potential implications of the proceedings on this sprawling military base outside Washington, D.C. go far beyond his fate alone.
The most serious charge the government has laid against Manning is aiding the enemy. The charge rests on the novel legal theory that Manning should have known that his disclosures could wind up in the hands of Osama bin Laden -- as they apparently did.
In a cruel twist, then, Manning's decision to release the files that included the video of Reuters journalists being killed threatens to criminalize both journalism and whistle-blowing.
"The case is a sledgehammer," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told HuffPost last week. "It is there to try and terrorize anyone else into being a force for the media, by trying to terrorize this young man."
Manning's road to trial began on May 29, 2010, when he was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq. He was eventually transferred to a Marine brig in Quantico, Va, where he was held for nine months.
Forced to strip naked at night, kept in solitary confinement under the unrelenting glare of guards because they alleged he was a suicide risk, some have described Manning's treatment at Quantico as similar to that of detainees at Guantanamo. It sparked an international outcry.
Col. Denise Lind, the military judge overseeing the case, ruled in January that the military's treatment of Manning in pretrial detention was "excessive" and gave him 112 days credit off any eventual prison sentence.
PJ Crowley, the former State Department spokesman who was forced to resign after he decried Manning's treatment, has warned the trial threatens to once again turn him into a martyr. But he has no respect for what the soldier did.
"Bradley Manning's responsibility as a member of the military was to protect the national interest," he said. "It was not Bradley Manning's job to define the national interest."
In other pretrial rulings, Lind has also held that the government must prove that Manning had reason to believe that his disclosures could have harmed the United States. On the controversial aiding the enemy charge, she has ruled that the government will have to show "that the accused had to know he was dealing, directly or indirectly, with an enemy of the United States."
"I think it will be hard to prove," David Frakt, a visiting professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Law, wrote in an email. He believes Manning may be able to beat the aiding the enemy charge.
If he can't, press freedom advocates have warned, the ability of other news organizations to report on classified information may be in jeopardy. The case is now occurring in the context of the subpoenas issued for Associated Press and Fox News phone records. Government prosecutors have said they would have charged Manning no differently if he had leaked directly to The New York Times.
"If successful, the prosecution will establish a chilling precedent: national security leaks may subject the leakers to a capital prosecution or at least life imprisonment," lawyers Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler wrote in The New York Times in March. "Anyone who holds freedom of the press dear should shudder at the threat that the prosecution’s theory presents to journalists, their sources and the public that relies on them."
The case has already been marred by public access problems: Lind and the military have kept transcripts, motions and rulings in the case secret. A coalition of activists and journalists is suing to open up access to records in the trial.
In response to the government's charges, Manning's lawyer David Coombs will likely argue that his client thought of himself as a whistle-blower. In his February plea statement, Manning said he wanted to "spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan."
But that kind of argument may only go so far with Lind, who under military law has wide latitude to impose whatever sentence she deems appropriate. Manning has chosen to eschew a jury trial, likely to avoid the added uncertainty it could bring, said military justice expert Eugene R. Fidell.
"He's going to be sentenced by an Army colonel, and his sentence is going to be reviewed by an army major general," Fidell said. "This is not a laughing matter for them."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
Also on HuffPost:
Abuse Of Prisoners
As the <em>New York Times </em><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/25/world/guantanamo-files-lives-in-an-american-limbo.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1" target="_hplink">reports</a>, Mohammed Qahtani -- a Saudi believed to have been an intended participant in the Sept. 11 attacks -- was subject to coercive questioning and other abuses during his interrogation. The cables describe Qahtani as being leashed like a dog, sexually humiliated and forced to urinate on himself. His file says, "Although publicly released records allege detainee was subject to harsh interrogation techniques in the early stages of detention," his confessions "appear to be true and are corroborated in reporting from other sources."
Arbitrary Nature Of Prison System
As <em>Le Monde</em> is <a href="http://www.worldcrunch.com/wikileaks-guantanamo-why-us-declared-iranian-catholic-drug-dealer-enemy-combatant" target="_hplink">reporting</a>, one "low-value" Iranian-Catholic detainee was kept in Guantanamo even after being deemed ready for release -- given his "cooperative nature" and in the interest of "possible financing relations" between Al Qaeda and traffickers. According to the cables, Abdul Majid Muhammed was deemed fit for release in 2002: "The detainee is not affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. He was involved in drug trafficking. It is unlikely that he represents a risk for the U.S. or its allies."
An Al Jazeera journalist was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/sami-al-hajj-al-jazeera-j_n_853297.html" target="_hplink">reportedly </a>held at Guantanamo Bay for six years partially so he could be interrogated about the network Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese national and Al Jazeera cameraman, was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. Though he was never convicted or even tried of any terrorist ties, al-Hajj was held until 2008 because interrogators wanted to find out more about "the al-Jazeera news network's training programme, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, including the network's acquisition of a video of UBL [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview with UBL," <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/guantanamo-files/US9SU-000345DP" target="_hplink">according</a> to the cables.
Violent Threats Against Captors
Some detainees are described as ruthlessly violent in the documents. As the <em>New York Times </em><a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/25/world/guantanamo-files-lives-in-an-american-limbo.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1" target="_hplink">reports</a>, one detainee said "he would like to tell his friends in Iraq to find the interrogator, slice him up, and make a shwarma (a type of sandwich) out of him, with the interrogator's head sticking out of the end of the shwarma." Another "threatened to kill a U.S. service member by chopping off his head and hands when he gets out," and informed a guard that "he will murder him and drink his blood for lunch. Detainee also stated he would fly planes into houses and prayed that President Bush would die."
New Details On Post-9/11 Al Qaeda Whereabouts
As the<em> Washington Post</em> <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/wikileaks-discloses-new-details-on-whereabouts-of-al-qaeda-leaders-on-911/2011/04/24/AFvvzIeE_story_2.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>, the documents describe a major gathering of some of Al Qaeda's most senior operatives in early December 2001. They included Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged planner of the USS Cole attack; and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a key facilitator for bin Laden. After returning to Karachi, Mohammed "put together a training program for assassinations and kidnappings as well as pistol and computer training."
"Nuclear Hellstorm' Threat
The leaked files<a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5h9ouUwZB0vhDcEsGB8N2uVcvGFqQ?docId=CNG.e738123e4ccce6019851c695501ca633.9e1" target="_hplink"> indicate</a> Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told Guantanamo Bay interrogators that Al Qaeda had hidden a nuclear bomb in Europe which will unleash a "nuclear hellstorm" if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed. The terror group also planned to make a 9/11 style attack on London's Heathrow airport by crashing a hijacked airliner into one of the terminals, the files showed.
The <em>Washington Post</em><a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/wikileaks-discloses-new-details-on-whereabouts-of-al-qaeda-leaders-on-911/2011/04/24/AFvvzIeE_story_2.html" target="_hplink"> reports</a> Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged planner of the USS Cole attack, "received injections to promote impotence" to avoid being distracted by women, and "recommended the injections to others so more time could be spent on the jihad."
Prisoner Details And Ranking System
Gitmo detainees are <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/wikileaks-discloses-new-details-on-whereabouts-of-al-qaeda-leaders-on-911/2011/04/24/AFvvzIeE_story.html" target="_hplink">reportedly</a> assessed "high," "medium" or "low" in terms of their intelligence value, the threat they pose while in detention and the continued threat they might pose to the United States if released. As Reuters<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/guantanamo-files-detainees_n_853309.html" target="_hplink"> reports</a>, most of the 172 remaining prisoners have been rated as a "high risk" of posing a threat to the United States and its allies if released without adequate rehabilitation and supervision.
Gitmo authorities named Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency a "terrorist organization" along with Hamas and other international militant networks, according to leaked documents. As the Associated Press <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/pakistan-intelligence-terror-links-guantanamo_n_853274.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>, the ISI is part of a list that includes more than 60 international militant networks, as well as Iran's intelligence services, that are "terrorist" entities or associations and say detainees linked to them "may have provided support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, or engaged in hostilities against U.S. and coalition forces."