08/15/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2013

What's Bradley Manning Sorry For? Secrecy Surrounds Evidence Of Harm From WikiLeaks Disclosures


WASHINGTON -- His words were straightforward: "I am sorry. I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I am sorry that it hurt the United States."

But the meaning of Bradley Manning's apology, delivered in a wavering voice in military court on Wednesday as he faced a maximum 90-year sentence, is still a mystery. Because large portions of the sentencing testimony against Manning were closed to the press, just what the private first class was taking the blame for remains unknown.

Military judge Col. Denise Lind could pronounce Manning's sentence on 20 counts, including six Espionage Act offenses, for sending files to WikiLeaks as early as next week. His supporters maintain that he was acting in the public interest, but the court secrecy means that even as Manning's court martial comes to a close, it has produced little public evidence about whether his leaks of videos and battlefield logs from Iraq and Afghanistan on balance helped or hurt the world.

"The public's ability to understand the sentence is going to be permanently impaired by that fact that, unfortunately, there are large pieces of this that are going to be off the public record," said Eugene Fidell, a visiting professor in military law at Yale Law School. "There are going to be missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle."

Manning's three-minute statement to the court on Wednesday did not mention WikiLeaks or any of his disclosures by name, referring only to "my decisions" and "my actions." And he referred only vaguely to "hurt" and "unintended consequences" -- not to the evidence of actual harm that the government has tried to unearth during its sentencing case.

Prosecutors have not linked Manning's leaks to any deaths of U.S. soldiers, informants or allies. In open court over a week and a half of testimony, the government's sentencing case instead focused on the hundreds of Pentagon and State Department staffers who were taken away from their desks to mitigate Manning's WikiLeaks disclosures, the "chilling effects" on foreign relations, and the possibility that al Qaeda could have used some of the leaked information for propaganda purposes.

Judge Lind has made rulings limiting the scope of that propaganda testimony and tossing speculative testimony about damage that cannot be directly tied to Manning's leaks.

But more than 11 hours of the government's sentencing testimony about the actual harm or damage those leaks caused, by Firedoglake's Kevin Gosztola's count, have taken place behind closed doors in the utilitarian courtroom on Fort Meade that Lind oversees.

Two high-ranking military officers gave much of their testimony in closed session: Rear Admiral Kevin M. Donegan, director of operations at U.S. Central Command when Manning's leaks were released, and Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who was the Central Command's director of strategy, plans and policy.

Although he fought for greater openness before the trial opened, Manning's defense attorney David Coombs raised few objections to the closed sessions during it, perhaps conscious of Lind's ruling that "the overriding interest of protecting national security information from disclosure outweighs any danger of miscarriage of justice."

Lind also ruled that the government should release redacted transcripts of the closed sessions as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, out of the numerous prosecution witnesses testifying about classified information, the Army has only released two transcripts so far -- nearly two weeks after the witnesses appeared in court.

The Military District of Washington did not respond to a request for comment made just before the first transcript disclosure on Tuesday about whether the lack of redacted transcripts hurt the public's ability to understand the trial.

Lind ruled that Manning could not argue that he was not guilty because his leaks were motivated by a desire to serve the public interest. His defense team still could have focused on his motives during the sentencing phase of the trial, after he was found guilty -- but instead they sought to appeal to the military judge's sense of mercy by highlighting Manning's difficult upbringing and turbulent Army life.

A forensic psychiatrist testified for the defense on Wednesday that Manning was under an extreme amount of stress at the time of his leaks, as a result of his struggles with his gender identity. That explained in part, said Navy Capt. David Moulton, Manning's weak grasp of the consequences of his actions.

But Moulton also said that Manning thought he "was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually."

And when he was asked by the prosecution whether Manning would leak again, Moulton said, "I don't know if he would. I think historically Manning has been pretty true to his principles."

After the court closed for the day Wednesday, Coombs addressed a group of supporters, some tearing up, who think of his client as a whistleblower. His words offered comfort for those who think of Manning as a hero -- instead of or in addition to the "smaller, sadder figure" who emerged in the defense's testimony this week about their client's often tough personal life.

"Bradley is certainly a person who had his heart in the right place and he was thinking about you ... the American public," Coombs said. "His one goal was to make this world a better place."