(CN) - With the trial of Bradley Manning poised to reveal that Osama bin Laden sent emails about Wikileaks, Courthouse News took a fresh look at how public documents from the Abbottabad raid show al-Qaida's close watch on major news networks.
A charge of aiding the enemy is traditionally used for direct communications with an "enemy," rather than leaks to a news outlet, and a press disclosure has not been prosecuted under this statute since the Civil War.
Noting that the precedent could make a capital offense out of any unauthorized disclosure regarding national defense, the American Civil Liberties Union called the revival of this prosecution "breathtaking" in a blog post.
New York Times columnist Bill Keller speculated about the potential scope of the charge in a March 10 column after Manning said he tried to contact The New York Times and the Washington Post before uploading to WikiLeaks.
Though critical of Manning, the column called the top charge against him "disturbing overkill."
"If Manning's leak provided comfort to the enemy, then so does every news story about cuts in defense spending, or opposition to drone strikes, or setbacks in Afghanistan," Keller remarked.
That statement echoes an unrelated bin Laden letter that West Point-based Combating Terrorism Center translated into English and published last year as part of its study, "Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?"
"This year has been the worst year for [the U.S.] in Afghanistan since they invaded it," bin Laden purportedly wrote on Oct. 21, 2010. "The number of their dead has never been this high according to their own reports. Their financial crisis continues. Britain has lowered is defense budget and America is reducing the budget of the Pentagon."
Bin Laden does not reveal in the message how he learned of this information.
Later in the letter, the al-Qaida leader discussed plans to deliver a statement to U.S. news outlets for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"If al-Jazirah [sic] shows responsiveness, we should contact the correspondent of al-Jazirah [sic] Arabic and English and tell them that we are willing to cooperate with them in the area of covering the tenth anniversary by answering any questions that you think the public is interested in," bin Laden purportedly wrote.
He added: "We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased, such as CBS, or other channel that has political motives that make it interested in broadcasting the point of view of al-Mujahidin."
Bin Laden did not otherwise explain why he perceived CBS as a potentially receptive outlet.
In surveying 17 documents taken from the Abbottabad raid, the Combating Terrorism Center focused on how counterterrorism efforts have fractured al-Qaida, but multiple letters show how the terror group monitored and tried to court the media.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in an apparent reply to bin Laden's letter by Adam Gadahn, an American who became al-Qaida's spokesman.
Dated January 2011, the odd document proposes a list of major news broadcasters whose "professionalism and neutrality" al-Qaida could supposedly trust for a statement a decade after Sept. 11.