FORT MEADE, Md. (CN) – A long-anticipated fight over public access to the court-martial of WikiLeaker Pfc. Bradley Manning has come to Federal Court, a week and a half before his trial is set to begin.
The Center for Constitutional Rights sued the judge presiding over Manning’s trial, Col. Denise Lind; the convening authority, Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington; Judge Advocate General Lt. Gen. Dana Chipman; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; and two JAG officers, in Baltimore Federal Court.
That court is less than an hour away from the military base in Ft. Meade, Md., where pretrial hearings in Manning’s court-martial have been proceeding since December 2011.
Press and civil liberties groups have criticized the lack of public access to the case’s transcripts and legal documents for more than a year.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was joined by more than 40 news organizations in a March 2012 petition to the Pentagon that called Manning’s case more secretive than those of Guantanamo detainees.
WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange and five journalists filed a lawsuit later that year in the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, demanding more access to court-martial records.
A divided court ruled against more open access in April, on procedural grounds. The 3-2 majority found it lacked jurisdiction to hear an appeal by journalists who were not participants in Manning’s court-martial.
On Wednesday, the CCR tried to crack the secrecy in the Manning case in the nearest federal court to where the young soldier is being tried.
In its 46-page memo in support of a request for a preliminary injunction, the CCR asks the court to order the military to lift restrictions over “one of the most controversial, high-profile court-martials since the trial of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, and the most important case of any kind involving the alleged disclosure of classified information since a military analyst, Professor Daniel Ellsberg, released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post.”
Although the military offered improved access to some records in the Manning case in recent months, much of the upcoming trial is expected to be secret.
On Tuesday, Judge Lind granted all of the government’s requests to close the court for 24 classified witnesses; prosecutors had estimated that that testimony could encompass as much as one-third of the trial.
Shayana Kadidal, a senior attorney for The Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a statement that the lawsuit is the last chance for meaningful access to records in the Manning trial, and other high-profile military cases.
“The federal civilian courts are now our last option,” Kadidal said. “If this lawsuit fails, Manning’s trial will take place under conditions where journalists and the public will be unable as a practical matter to follow what is going on in the courtroom. That ensures that any verdict will be fundamentally unfair, and also that we can expect similarly poor access to the Nidal Hasan and Robert Bates military trials later this year as well.”
Nidal Hassan is accused of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder at Fort Hood on Nov. 2009. Hassan was a member of the Army Medical Corps at the time.
Robert Bates, an Army sergeant, is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians during a shooting rampage in March 2012.
In this lawsuit, the Center for Constitutional Rights demands an injunction providing access to contemporaneous filings, transcripts, and goings-on of “R.C.M. 802” conferences, which are meetings between the parties in judge’s chambers.
Co-counsel for the CCR includes William Murphy with Zuckerman Spaeder and Brooklyn solo practitioner Jonathan Hafetz.
Also Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders asked President Barack Obama’s administration to stop prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act for leaks to the press.
“Six whistleblowers have been prosecuted under this law since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009,” Reporters Without Borders wrote in a statement. “Previously, the Espionage Act had only been used three times in response to leaks: in 1973 (for the high-profile Pentagon Papers case during the Vietnam War), in 1985 and in 2005.”
Condemning the cases as “witch hunts,” the group noted that four of the six cases began in 2010, “most notably against Private Bradley Manning.”
Manning’s trial is expected to begin on June 3, barring any further delay.
The Center for Constitutional Rights was founded in 1966 during the civil rights struggle by attorneys William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy. Kinoy describes the founding, and a lot more, in his autobiography, “Rights on Trial.”
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