FORT MEADE, Maryland (AP) — A U.S. military judge has begun deciding the fate of Army soldier Bradley Manning, who could face life in prison for giving thousands of pieces of classified military and diplomatic information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in one of the largest leaks in American history.
The prosecution says the 25-year-old is a glory-seeking traitor. His defense lawyers call him a naive whistleblower who was horrified by wartime atrocities but didn’t know that the material he leaked would end up in the hands of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
Army Col. Denise Lind began deliberating Friday after hearing nearly two months of conflicting evidence and arguments about the 25-year-old intelligence analyst. A military judge, not a jury, is hearing the case at Manning’s request.
Lind said she will give a day’s public notice before reconvening the court-martial to announce her findings. The most serious of the 21 charges against Manning is aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence in prison.
Manning’s supporters say that a conviction would have a chilling effect on government accountability by deterring people from disclosing official secrets to journalists. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a telephone press conference Friday that if Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, it will be “the end of national security journalism in the United States.”
He accused the Obama administration of waging a “war on whistleblowers” and a “war on journalism.”
Prosecutors contend Manning knew the material would be seen across the globe, including by bin Laden, when he started the leaks in late 2009. Manning said he didn’t’ start leaking until February 2010.
“Worldwide distribution, that was his goal,” said the military’s lead prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, during closing arguments on Friday. “Pfc. Manning knew the entire world included the enemy, from his training. He knew he was giving it to the enemy, specifically al-Qaida.”
Defense attorney David Coombs said Manning was negligent in releasing classified material, but lacked the “evil intent” that prosecutors must prove to convict him of aiding the enemy.
Coombs called the government’s final remarks “a diatribe … fictional … fantastical,” and said it leaped to conclusions and contradicted itself in areas where prosecutors could not prove something with facts.
After Coombs finished his three-hour-long argument, there was a smattering of applause from Manning supporters, who were quickly hushed by the judge.
Manning also faces federal espionage, theft and computer fraud charges. He has acknowledged giving WikiLeaks some 700,000 battlefield reports, diplomatic cables and videos, but he says he didn’t believe the information would harm troops in Afghanistan and Iraq or threaten national security.
“The amount of the documents in this case, actually, is the best evidence that he was discreet in what he chose, because if he was indiscriminate, if he was systematically harvesting, we wouldn’t be talking about a few hundred thousand documents — we’d be talking about millions of documents,” Coombs said.
Giving the material to WikiLeaks was no different than giving it to a newspaper, Coombs said. The government disagreed and said Manning would also have been charged if he had leaked the classified material to the media.
Coombs showed three snippets of video from a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack Manning leaked, showing troops firing on a small crowd of men on a Baghdad sidewalk, killing several civilians, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. Coombs said the loss of civilian lives horrified the young soldier.
“You have to look at that from the point of view of a guy who cared about human life,” Coombs said.
Coombs has said Manning wanted to do something to make a difference, and he hoped revealing what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. diplomacy would inspire debate and reform in foreign and military policy.
Coombs also countered one of prosecutor Fein’s arguments that attempted to show Manning was seeking fame: A photo Manning took of himself, smiling in front of a mirror while on leave. Fein said it showed a “gleeful, grinning” Manning who was proud to be “on his way to notoriety” he wanted.
Coombs asked the judge to take a closer look at the photo, pointing out that Manning was wearing makeup and a bra.
“What you see is a young man who is cross-dressing,” Coombs said as Manning’s face tightened slightly.
“Maybe, just maybe … he is happy to be himself for that moment,” Coombs said of Manning’s struggle to fit into the military at a time when he was confused about his gender identity and serving openly was illegal for gays.
After his arrest in May 2010, Manning was held alone for nine months in a windowless cell 23 hours a day, sometimes with no clothing. Jailers at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, said they considered him a suicide risk. Lind later ruled Manning had been illegally punished and should get 112 days off any prison sentence he receives.
Meanwhile, Lind banned one of Manning’s most visible supporters from the trial Friday “to prevent harm or intimidation” of trial participants. An Army spokeswoman said the subject was a member of the media who posted threatening messages online. Clark Stoeckley, a college art instructor from New Jersey, confirmed he was the one booted.
Stoeckley attended the court-martial as a sketch artist, arriving each day in a white box truck with bold words painted on the sides: “WikiLeaks TOP SECRET Mobile Information Collection Unit.”
A tweet Thursday night from an account Stoeckley used said: “I don’t know how they sleep at night but I do know where.” It was removed Friday and Stoeckley told The Associated Press on Twitter he couldn’t comment.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.