Obama’s Bradley Manning Gaffe

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Bradley Manning

It was a throwaway line at the end of a fundraiser. But it’s fitting that in the Wikileaks era, President Obama was being video recorded when he told a questioner in San Francisco last month that U.S. army private Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, “broke the law.”

Now attorneys supporting Manning, 23, have seized on that comment to argue that Obama has prejudiced Manning’s court-martial and that charges against  Pfc. Bradley should be thrown out.

“President Obama is the Commander-in-chief,” Kevin Zeese, an attorney with the Bradley Manning Support Network told a teleconference for reporters held today to mark the one-year anniversary of Manning’s arrest and imprisonment. “The only way the military can claim there is no undue influence in this case would be a charade–[it would be] officers claiming they are not [listening to] their Commander-in-chief. The military courts have held over and over that if undue influence can be proven the case should be dropped.”

Zeese added that he performed a google search with “Obama, Manning and guilty” and found 1.5 million hits on April 24, the day after Obama’s remarks hit the internet, suggesting that Obama’s comments went viral and were thus unavoidable.

Obama’s gaffe came during an answer to a question about Manning’s imprisonment. “I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source,” Obama told an unidentified questioner. “That’s not how … the world works. If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law … We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate … He broke the law.”

This isn’t the first time an off-the-cuff comment about Manning from the administration has caused an uproar. In March, US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told a seminar at MIT that the treatment of Manning in military detention “counterproductive and stupid”—until his transfer last month to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, Manning had been held in near-solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va, where he was forced to sleep nude.  Crowley eventually resigned from his position, although he has since said he stands by his comments.

The fallout to Obama’s remarks have been international. Ann Clywd, a British Member of Parliament and the chairwoman of a parliamentary group on human rights, told British media that Obama may have prejudiced Manning’s trial. She told the Guardian that Obama’s remarks “were an amazing thing for the president of the United States to comment on when the man hasn’t stood trial yet”. Manning is charged with various crimes related to his alleged leaking of video and war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies. He faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

Manning is expected to face prosecution in the fall. Investigators have also been keen to learn what contact Manning had with Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. Assange denies knowing Bradley’s identity until after his arrest. But over at the New YorkerRaffi Khatchadourian posts some strong circumstantial evidence that this might not be the case.

In May of last year, my piece about WikiLeaks was making its way through the last stages of production at The New Yorker. It was being edited and fact-checked; final touches were being added. I did not interview Manning for the article; nonetheless, while we were working on the piece, he wrote [to a contact] on May 25th and said, “new yorker is running 10k word article on on 30 may, btw.” This turned out to be a dead-on prediction. But how could he have known specifics about our piece before we had published it? The answer is pretty clear: someone involved in WikiLeaks, or an intermediary, told him.

Obama administration officials will be scrutinizing the relationship between Assange and Manning as they consider charging the Australian-born Wikileaks boss under the Espionage Act. Already, there are reports of sitting grand jury convened in Virginia to weigh Assange’s prosecution. With characteristic swagger, however, Assange claimed on Wednesday that his organization will gain whether he faces prosecution or not. He told reporters on the Manning conference call that charging himself or Manning under the Espionage Act will “criminalize investigative journalism.”
“From Wikileaks’ perspective, either outcome works,” he added. “Either the mainstream press in the U.S. collapses as an effective investigative organ, and all sources are then forced to only deal with Wikileaks, or the administration finds that it has to conform to the U.S. first amendment and thus the U.S. becomes a free society that upholds Wikileaks’ values.”
Let’s hope Obama’s mic is off when he hears that comment.