Conflict & Justice

Analyzing the Prosecution Case in the Bradley Manning Trial

The prosecution in the Bradley Manning court martial rested their case on Tuesday of this week, well ahead of schedule, taking only 14 days in the courtroom. A casual observer might think the prosecution finished early because they have an easy job: Manning has admitted to leaking the vast majority of documents in question, and he's already pleaded guilty to a list of crimes on his charge sheet that could get him 20 years in a military prison.

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But Manning and his defense team argue his actions don't warrant the most serious charges against him, the most controversial being 'Aiding the Enemy.' That could get him life in prison.

In its opening statement, the prosecution put a graphic up on a courtroom screen– It was the Wikileaks "Most wanted list," a wish list posted on their website in 2009, the year before Manning began leaking documents. Chief prosecutor, Captain Joe Morrow, said the government would show that Manning used it as a 'shopping list,' and they would show even more direct coordination between Manning and Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange. But we saw little of that in court.

"They have no forensic evidence connecting that- what they have is circumstantial evidence," according to Adam Klasfeld, who has been covering the court martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, for Courthouse News. He says the prosecution's own experts have been unable to deliver evidence Manning had followed directions, even in-directly, from Wikileaks. The forensic analyst called by the prosecution "didn't find any visit to the [Wikileaks] URL," on Manning's computer, and didn't find any evidence of communication in the "unallocated space," on Manning's computer, the area where deleted e-mails would remain. Klasfeld says the prosecution argued the lack of material in the unallocated space was suspicious. "So in the absence of that evidence, the government's theory was that Manning had wiped his computer, and so that's why it wasn't found there," he says.

What the government did show was uncontested evidence that the leaked material made it into the hands of Al Qaeda, citing Al Qaeda propaganda, and records recovered from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. But Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale law school says even this connection is indirect.

"I think the government's effort on the aiding the enemy charge was basically predicated on circumstantial evidence," he says. "And if you connect–if you could put enough dots on the chart–the theory is that the Military judge would almost inevitably connect them."

But as Fidell points out, the prosecution has not been able to provide as many dots as promised in their opening statement. "One thing that teaches is the danger of making promises in an opening statement that you can't keep," he says. "As it played out, I think the government may have concluded it either had made the demonstrated by circumstantial evidence or it decided it hadn't, and couldn't, and that may explain why they didn't call many of the witnesses they said they were going to call and why they… wrapped up the prosecution case well before anyone anticipated."

Bradley Manning's team is scheduled to begin their defense on Monday, but Fidell expects that over this holiday weekend they will be drafting a new motion to dismiss the charges against the 25-year-old private.

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