Manning Trial Evidence Loosens Assange Ties
FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - The only chats recovered between Pfc. Bradley Manning and an online chat buddy believed to be Julian Assange never show the WikiLeaks chief urging the young soldier to upload more documents for publication, a government witness said Wednesday.
Months before his trial, the 25-year-old soldier freely admitted to leaking more than 700,000 files including diplomatic cables, incident reports from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, profiles of Guantanamo detainees, and a video of an airstrike in Baghdad that WikiLeaks titled "Collateral Murder."
He pleaded not guilty to "aiding the enemy," or violating the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act through those leaks. He made the admissions, and the denials, during his plea to so-called "lesser included offenses" in February.
Several of the disputed facts that still remain turn on what role, if any, WikiLeaks played in encouraging the leaks. Prosecutors allege that Manning took cues directly from Assange in Internet chats and the organization's 2009 "Most-Wanted" Leaks list and Twitter feed. Manning's attorneys vigorously deny those claims.
Observers have noted that each of these issues could impact potential conspiracy charges against Assange and WikiLeaks staffers in Alexandria, Va., where federal grand jury proceedings are ongoing.
Any possible prosecution would rest on the idea that WikiLeaks acted as something other than a news outlet in publishing classified documents, typically a right associated with constitutional freedom of the press. Criminally charging a media organization for conspiring to violate the Espionage Act is apparently unprecedented.
On Wednesday, expert Mark Johnson told the court that he found no indication that Manning ever visited the "Most-Wanted" list. The purported Manning-Assange chats he recovered also contained no solicitations for files, Johnson added.
These chats show Manning chatting with a user "pressassociation." Manning explained that he nicknamed this user "Nathaniel Frank," after the author of a book he read in 2009. That year, Frank published a book called "Unfriendly Fire," a critique of the military's then-active "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies.
Though military has never released the full record of those chats to the public, Johnson testified that he did not see "pressassociation" prodding Manning for documents anywhere in the documents he inspected.
Capt. Joe Morrow, one of the prosecutors, tried to account for the missing evidence by suggesting that Manning deleted it when he wiped his computer on Jan. 31, 2010.
Johnson said nothing deleted before that date could be forensically recovered from what is known as unallocated space.
While digging through the unallocated space, Johnson did find one rather significant file in dispute: footage from a deadly airstrike on the Farah province of Afghanistan that killed between 86 to 147 civilians.
Manning offered to admit that he leaked the video in March 2010.
Prosecutors have insisted that he sent it between Nov. 1, 2009, shortly after Manning's deployment to Iraq, and Jan. 8, 2010, the date attached to an archived Tweet from WikiLeaks' Twitter feed that may reference the video.
The fact that the deleted file appeared in the unallocated space suggests that Manning deleted it at some unknown time after Jan. 31, 2010, Johnson testified.
Other evidence undermining the government's timeline about the Farah video transmission came to light on Tuesday. Manning will not be held responsible for this disclosure if the government fails to prove its timeline.
Speaking about the hearing, First Amendment lawyer James Goodale said that "the evidence that came out today does not help the government's case against Julian Assange."
Goodale's book "Fighting for the Press" details his time as lead New York Times lawyer during the time of the Pentagon Papers.
"But that does not mean the government may have other evidence about which we may learn later at an Assange trial, if any," Goodale told Courthouse News. "After all, this is Manning's trial, not Assange's."
Prosecutors tried to prove Wednesday that Manning bypassed security mechanisms. This lesser charge is not a violation of the Espionage Act, but rather a military regulation.
As with the other charges, prosecutors contend that Manning enlisted Assange's help. In this case, the soldier allegedly sought advice on cracking a password to surf a classified military network anonymously. The evidence for this hinges largely upon a short section of the chat logs between the two that has been made public.
According to the released segment, user "dawgnetwork" wrote: "any good at lm hash cracking?"
Hash cracking refers to the reverse engineering of a password, and prosecutors believe that this user was Manning.
"Pressassociation" replied, "Yes," and later added, "we have rainbow tables for lm," a tool that speeds up decryption.
Forensic analysis showed that an unknown user unsuccessfully attempted to crack a password through this method, Army investigator David Shaver testified later in the day.