After admitting guilt in 10 of 22 charges, soldier reveals how he came to share classified documents with WikiLeaks and talks of ‘bloodlust’ of US helicopter crew
Bradley Manning, the solider accused of the biggest unauthorised disclosure of state secrets in US history, has admitted for the first time 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.
On his return to Iraq, he encountered a video that showed an Apache helicopter attack from 2007 in which a group of people in Baghdad came under US fire. The group was later found to have included civilians, children and two Reuters correspondents who died.
Manning said he was “troubled” by the resistance of the military authorities to releasing the video to Reuters, and a claim from on high that it might not still exist. When he looked through the video on a secure military database he was also troubled by the attitude of the aerial weapons team in the Apache – “the bloodlust they seemed to have, they seemed not to value human life”.
The soldier related that in the video a man who has been hit by the US forces is seen crawling injured through the dust, at which point one of the helicopter crew is heard wishing the man would pick up a weapon so that they could kill him. “For me that was like a child torturing an ant with a magnifying glass.”
After he had uploaded the video to WikiLeaks, which then posted it as the now notorious “Collateral Murder” video, Manning said he was approached by a senior WikiLeaks figure codenamed “Ox”. He assumed the individual was probably Julian Assange, and gave him his own codename – Nathaniel Frank – after the author of a book he had recently read.
Of the largest portion of the WikiLeaks disclosures – the 250,000 US diplomatic cables – Manning said he was convinced the documents form embassies around the world would embarrass but not damage the US. “I thought these cables were a prime example of the need for more diplomacy. In many ways they were a collection of cliques and gossip,” he said.
After reading his statement, Manning entered into in several hours of questions from the trial judge, Colonel Denise Lind, who has the duty of ensuring that the accused made his guilty plea voluntarily and in full knowledge of its implications. Lind found Manning made his plea without coercion and in knowledge of its impact, and accepted it.
In the course of the questioning, Lind tried to get to the bottom of an apparent contradiction in Manning’s comments. In his statement, he expressed strong moral reasons for his actions that suggested he was justified in leaking confidential information for the greater good.
Yet in his guilty plea, he admitted that he had acted without authorisation and that his conduct had been “prejudicial to good order and discipline and of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces”.
Lind referred to these two seemingly polar positions and asked: “How can they co-exist?”
Manning replied: “Regardless of my opinions, it’s beyond my pay-grade, it’s beyond my authority to make these decisions. There are channels you are supposed to go through. I didn’t even look at those channels – that’s not how we do business.”
At another point, the judge asked him what would happen if someone at the top of the military chain of command made a decision, and lower ranks decided to ignore it according to their own morale code. “You would have junior ranks making their own decisions until the organisation seizes up,” Manning replied.