A Look Back At The Manning Trial

Bradley Manning was found guilty of espionage but acquitted of the most serious charge against him, aiding the enemy. Renee Montagne talks to NPR's Arun Rath about the significance of the verdict. He has covered the proceedings since they began.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So possibly years of appeals for Bradley Manning, and for more on the verdict, we're joined by NPR's Arun Rath, who's covered the proceedings at Fort Meade for PBS's "Frontline" since the case began almost two years ago.

Welcome, Arun.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about the charge that has gotten the most attention: aiding the enemy, obviously partly because it could've sent Manning to prison for life without possibility of parole. But why else did it matter so much?

RATH: Well, this is the one that a lot of news organizations were worried about. Because it would have been an unprecedented application of aiding the enemy, at least an application that wouldn't have been used since the Civil War. And obviously there weren't websites at that time so it's not really used in the same way.

Basically the logic they were using - and it was considered a stretch by a lot of people - was that Bradley Manning leaked the documents to WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks can be read by anyone, and anyone in this case happened to be al-Qaida. It was used by them. It gave aid and comfort in that way to the enemy and therefore Bradley Manning was aiding the enemy. In the end, however, the prosecution didn't connect those dots for the judge and she was not convinced on that, so I think the press is probably, investigative journalism in particular, are breathing a sigh of relief as of yesterday.

RENE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Right, exactly. Although one thing we just heard in Carrie's story was that Julian Assange referred to the administration's, what he called war against investigative journalism. But this was a military trial, Arun. Manning was in uniform. How much does it apply to what happens in civilian life?

RATH: Well, exactly. You know, leaving beside the question of whether or not the Obama administration is cracking down on whistleblowers, this is a military prosecution, so it's a little bit farfetched, I think, to imagine that a military prosecutor would be taking marching orders from the administration. There might be consultation with the Department of Justice, but it would actually be improper for that to be taking place in that way.

It's sort of in a separate universe in that way.

MONTAGNE: What about Manning? He's beat the one charge, but he's been found guilty of several other very serious charges, including espionage.

RATH: Yeah. And I think that were it not for all the attention about the ramifications for the press on the aiding the enemy charge and not for the prosecutors reaching on that, we would not be talking about a victory for Manning today. As was mentioned in the piece, he faces maybe 136 years in prison. Now, that's the maximum. I think it's unlikely that he would serve that because a lot of these are parallel charges, sort of next to each other.

It would be - possibly he could run them concurrently. The judge also has absolute latitude in sentencing. There are no minimums, so she could even, say, give him a dishonorable discharge and give him time served and let him go. That's also unlikely, but I think it's, you know, the maximum is also pretty unlikely.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us more about this weeks-long sentencing phase. We're talking about witnesses. What kind of witnesses are going to appear?

RATH: The battle is going to be about how, I think mainly, how much damage was caused by the leaks. Up until this point, they have not had to prove there was actual damage caused, only the potential for damage. Now we'll hear these assessments. What's going to be interesting, though, Rene, is that - I say we'll hear them, but we're probably not going to hear a lot of it because these assessments of the damage that were caused by Wikileaks, these internal audits done by the government, various agencies, they're classified.

And even some of these witnesses are classified, I think 13 of the witnesses. Even those who are not, they'll be closed sessions and will not be open to the media. So we may not know for a long time what the damages were and what's going to go into the judge making her decision.

MONTAGNE: Well, just one last thing and very briefly, why did the defense choose a trial by judge rather than a military jury?

RATH: Well, it's interesting. I think that - it was never a question of did he do it or didn't he. He admitted very early on, Bradley Manning, that he'd leaked these documents, so there was sort of a philosophical argument that the defense was making that he was justified for moral reasons and ultimately legal reasons. And I think that would probably get more traction possibly from an educated military judge than a jury of 10 rank and file active duty soldiers.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Arun Rath, who will be taking over, by the way, as the new host of WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED based here at NPR West. That will be in late September. And Arun, we're really looking forward to having you with us out here.

RATH: I'm incredibly excited. Thanks, Rene.

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