Viewpoints: Justice and the court martial of Pte Manning

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Bradley Manning walking in Fort Meade, Maryland
Image caption,
Journalists faced restrictions while covering pretrial hearings in Fort Meade, Maryland

Accused Wikileaks leaker Pte First Class Bradley Manning has already pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges against him and faces up to 20 years in prison. So why is the US government still pursuing its prosecution, including on a charge of aiding the enemy, a capital crime?

The BBC spoke to a panel of national security analysts who assess the US government's motives and other aspects of the case.

Steven Aftergood, Federation of American Scientists

Pte Manning is charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with aiding the enemy. But there is no known evidence that he had any intent to aid the enemy.

Now, there is another way that the government could approach this - has the enemy benefitted from Pte Manning's disclosures?

The disclosure of the names of Afghans who co-operated with the US military put a target on the backs of those individuals.

It also sent a signal that the US military could not guarantee confidentiality of those who provide assistance to it. This was a coup for the Taliban forces.

Still, there do not seem to be many Bradley Mannings out there. And even if Pte Manning wanted to do today what he allegedly did years ago, it would be physically impossible.

The database of state department cables that he obtained on the US defence department computer network is no longer there.

There has also been an effort to increase the automated monitoring of classified networks in order to detect unusual downloads of information.

There is something else to consider, too. Pte Manning has already pleaded guilty to crimes that would get him years in prison, but the army continues to pursue him.

There is no question that Pte Manning did some bad stuff. But is he the worst criminal from this past decade of war? Why do we know Pte Manning's name - and we don't know the names of soldiers who killed civilians or others who are being court-martialed?

There is a disproportionate response when it comes to Pte Manning. It doesn't seem right.

PJ Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration

There is a Pentagon saying: anything worth doing is worth overdoing. That describes many aspects of the Pte Manning case.

Pte Manning told a military judge in February he provided some material to Wikileaks to spark a public debate about the Iraq war. A whistleblower would have stopped there. He didn't.

Appearing like the proverbial kid in a candy store, he downloaded and leaked hundreds of thousands of documents because they seemed "important".

Despite Pte Manning's admission of guilt to the leak itself, which ensures a prison term of up to 20 years, the military prosecution appears ready to proceed to trial next week hoping to convict him of further charges, including aiding the enemy.

This is judicial overreach.

Pte Manning is a troubled young soldier who should have never served in the military, much less in a war zone. His serious mistakes based on naive misjudgements put real people at risk and damaged US national interests.

The Iraq War re-energised al-Qaeda. If Pte Manning aided the enemy, so did those who launched the ill-advised war in the first place.

The government has fulfilled its primary goal, making clear there will be severe consequences for the unauthorised release of classified information.

Anything more is simply piling on, which can only further erode the credibility of the military justice system and America's standing in the world.

Eugene Fidell, researcher on military justice, Yale Law School

There are two aspects of the prosecution's decision to accuse Pte Manning of aiding the enemy and to seek a life sentence.

One is to drive the potential penalty up further.

If the judge knows that the maximum punishment is life in prison, it may cause her to sentence him to more years than he would have otherwise received.

The other reason is to terrify people and to stop them from doing what Pte Manning did.

You could argue about whether the punishment is draconian, but the purpose of criminal law is to deter conduct.

The phrase "aiding the enemy" has an antique ring to it and is not usually associated with something done with a computer. And whether or not he is guilty is a legal judgment for the court.

But in terms of whether he had the intent - he certainly intended to send the material to Wikileaks. He knew they would make the material available.

Also, he confessed. So that horse has left the barn.

Many people believe this case is wrapped up with the concept of the whistleblower. But it is not clear what they are referring to.

A whistleblower is someone who calls the attention of the public to misconduct.

If Pte Manning was attempting to reveal misconduct, why would he reveal all of the state department's internal memos?

I don't know of any country that would sit by and watch as years of its diplomatic communications were made available to everybody.

Gary Solis, retired marine corps judge advocate and military judge

The government is overreaching. There are plenty of charges available that could result in conviction and significant punishment - without using the charge of aiding the enemy.

If one is to follow the line of reasoning that the government is employing - that by publishing the classified material, it may be read by the enemy and therefore constitutes aiding and abetting the enemy, then there are New York Times reporters who would be open to charges.

Yet charging reporters with these crimes would not show common sense. Why doesn't common sense apply in this case?

I have no sympathy for Pte Manning. But to overreach in charging, combined with the unwarranted secrecy under which the case is developing, does not do the US government any favours.

In addition, this case is so shrouded in secrecy that it is hard to know what is going on. Court proceedings, including those from courts martial, are supposed to be public.

Obviously aspects of some cases require a closed courtroom.

But the secrecy has been taken to levels rarely seen. During pre-trial hearings, the military judge was sitting in the courtroom with a nameplate in front of her, but they redacted her name in the papers that they released to the press.

Military justice, like civilian justice, should be as transparent as possible.

To keep things secret only raises suspicions - what are they hiding?