Manning Court Keeps Its Secrets
FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - Closing court for all testimony related to specific cables that Pfc. Bradley Manning sent to WikiLeaks is "very bad for justice" and the public understanding of statecraft, a retired diplomat told Courthouse News.
Though acquitted of aiding the enemy, the 25-year-old soldier could be sentenced to more than a century in prison for disclosing the biggest trove of confidential files in U.S. history, including more than 250,000 State Department telegrams published under the name "Cablegate."
These documents shed light on the Yemeni government's secret approval of U.S. drone strikes on its citizens, spying on the United Nations, a military contractor's alleged sexual abuse of a "dancing boy" in Afghanistan, and a world of private bickering among foreign powers. Amnesty International credited the cables for fueling the so-called Arab Spring.
None of those issues have been described or debated in open court in nearly two months of trial, and the policy of secrecy continues through the start of sentencing.
Elizabeth Dibble, who has spent more than three decades within the State Department, testified that there was "horror and disbelief" in the Bureau of European Affairs when Cablegate broke, but she would not go into specifics in open court.
Brady Kiesling, who served 20 years as a diplomat before resigning in protest of the Iraq War, attributed this reaction to the State Department's culture and policies. In an interview with Courthouse News, Kiesling said the government's initial response made it appear to be a crime for federal employees to even look at the leaked documents.
"Therefore, it took them an embarrassingly long time to provide to even post a list of the cables that had been leaked and to task them to go ahead," Kiesling said. "I could do it as a private citizen, while the State Department was wringing its hands in superstitious horror."
Closing the courtroom door for all testimony related to specific foreign relations would be "very bad for justice because secrecy allows you to shade the truth when you have to be honest in public," Kiesling said.
"The story is always more complicated, and by doing it in closed session, you can simplify it for a judge who's in no position to understand the ins and outs of diplomacy."
The secrecy makes it harder for the press and public to scrutinize the government's claims that the leaks caused "actual harm" to U.S. national security and foreign relations, he said.
Brig. Gen. Robert Carr, who headed the Information Review Task Force investigating the leaks, acknowledged in the sentencing phase of Manning's trial that he found no evidence that any intelligence source was injured or killed because of the leaks.
Kiesling said he heard "secondhand" rumors from what he described as an unreliable source that names found in the cables had to be whisked away to safety.
Attempts to protect endangered intelligence sources are known as "mitigation efforts."
"Let's put it this way, if there was a sudden wave of purges, we would have heard about it," Kiesling said. "That kind of information would have leaked. So whatever happened was small and self-contained."
Carr, who headed mitigation efforts, testified that names found in the cables were not specifically identified as "human intelligence" sources. U.S. Central Command gave battlefield a list of names found in the documents to commanders, who notified some sources, the general said.
John Feeley, the Department of State's principal deputy chief for the Western Hemisphere, testified in closed session about the effect of the leaks in Mexico and Ecuador, where candid statements prompted the recall of ambassadors. A similar situation occurred in Iceland.
Commenting on these cases, Kiesling said, "The good thing about diplomacy is because it's personal, it costs a certain amount to pull out early, but the new guy starts with a clean slate and the dance continues."
Charles Ray, a former ambassador to Zimbabwe, told Courthouse News in an interview that there had been press reports that the publication of cables in Zimbabwe triggered a criminal investigation in 2011 that led to rumors of the house arrest of a political opponent of President Robert Mugabe.
Ray said that he believed the leaks were a convenient pretext for the investigation, and that Mugabe would have found another one had the cables not been made public.
An editorial writer for The Guardian newspaper reported this incident as "WikiLeaks' Collateral Damage in Zimbabwe," then acknowledged in a correction that The Guardian had reported on the cable in question before it appeared on WikiLeaks.
The target of that Zimbabwean investigation, Morgan Tsvangirai, recently failed a third time to replace Mugabe, in elections Tsvangirai condemned this week as "illegal and unfair."
Ray said he understood why testimony about this event, for example, should be conducted in closed court.
"You've got a quote 'former ruling party' clinging onto power," he said. "You've got an opposition party challenging that. ... To bring this up again in a U.S. court right now, I think would be the worst possible thing that could happen."
Prosecutors want a lengthy sentence for Manning, for eroding the trust that the United States can keep other countries' secrets.
Manning's attorneys countered with a quotation from then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: "Every other government in the world knows that the United States government leaks like a sieve."
Lead defense attorney David Coombs has tried to prevent prosecutors from highlighting intangible harm, accusing prosecutors of "trying to put just about everything that ever happened at the feet of Pfc. Manning."
Victor Hansen, a professor of military jurisprudence at New England Law School, told Courthouse News that the scale of Manning's leaks creates a "two-edged sword" for both prosecutors and defense attorneys on sentencing.
"In assessing a sentencing, the judge cannot punish somebody for all the bad things that happened in the world and all the second- or third-order effects that might have resulted from the defendant's behavior," Hansen said. "So that makes it a very difficult case both for the government and for the defense here because of the nature of the information that was released and almost the breadth of it."
Hansen said signs pointing to the limited impact of the leaks raise "the question of, well, should Private Manning be punished so severely, when much of the consequences of this release was more of an embarrassment than a harm to national security."