Our criminal system has a straightforward structure: First, the defendant is tried. Next, a verdict is rendered. Finally, if found guilty, a sentence is carried out. However, for Pfc. Bradley Manning, this process has gone in reverse. For his alleged role as a key Wikileaks source, Manning is being subjected to the Bizarro World Rules of Criminal Procedure, first facing imprisonment then being declared guilty, all before being given a trial.
This week Wikileaks stormed back into the news by releasing a series of documents about Guantanamo Bay. But while its founder, Julian Assange, continues to put forward documents with limited threat of legal repercussions, Bradley Manning – the Army Private accused of providing Wikileaks with confidential documents – remains in a dire situation. For nine months, Manning was held in solitary confinement, regularly denied sleep, and deprived basic living amenities, a detainment situation so extreme that it raised serious questions regarding its legality. Last week Manning was moved to another facility. However, his problems continue to grow.
Several days ago at a fundraiser President Obama was caught on camera describing Manning as a criminal. Here is the a transcript of the conversation:
Obama: “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate. No, he’s doing fine, he’s doing fine; I mean, he’s being courteous, and he’s asking questions. He broke the law.”
Donor: “You can make it harder to break the law, even to tell the truth.”
Obama: “Well, what he did was he dumped”—
Donor: “Isn’t that just the same thing as what Daniel Ellsberg did?”
Obama: “No, it wasn’t the same thing. What it was, Ellsberg’s material wasn’t classified in the same way.”
This conversation – which has now become a widely circulated news story – has raised questions about the objectivity of Manning’s future trial. In general, this sort of comment has the potential to contaminate the jury pool and bias trial proceedings. However, as noted by Veterans for Peace, this effect is amplified here, where Manning will face a military trial, with President Obama serving as the Commander-in-Chief to the military personnel who will act as judge and jury.
The bias that has been injected into Manning’s future trial should be condemned for a variety of reasons.
First, while everything we have read and seen in the media might lead us to assume Pfc. Manning is guilty, we do not know all the details of his conduct, his circumstances, and the legal rules and requirements that will determine his guilt or innocence. The extent of our knowledge becomes all the more questionable in a case involving sensitive information, where critical facts might remain hidden from the public. Second, regardless of his guilt or innocence, Manning – like all Americans – is entitled to Due Process. This right is a pillar of democracy, and we go down a dark path by denying it to those who we presume are likely guilty. Finally, there are diplomatic issues to consider. President Obama came into office promising to improve America’s image in the world after the damage caused by the detention policies of the Bush Administration. Yet the treatment of Manning is eerily reminiscent of those policies, and is garnering attention abroad as well as at home.
In a situation involving the leaking of sensitive military information, it is easy to fall into the belief that safety is the only concern and speedy punishment the only priority. However, it is not only in the interest of justice, but also our national welfare, that Bradley Manning be given the legal rights and protections that all Americans are entitled to.