FORT MEADE, Maryland (AFP) – The trial of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of “aiding the enemy” by giving secret documents to WikiLeaks, enters its final stage Thursday as both sides present closing arguments.
Three years since Manning’s arrest in Iraq over what officials call the biggest national security leak in America’s history, his defense lawyer, David Coombs, and prosecutor Major Ashden Fein will have one last chance to make their case before a military judge delivers a verdict.
The 25-year-old former intelligence analyst already has admitted to leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. But he is fighting more serious charges, including the most serious count that he knowingly assisted Al-Qaeda through his massive document dump.
The court-martial has taken on new significance in the wake of dramatic revelations from another young man working with classified information, Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor who recently blew the lid on U.S. surveillance of phone records and Internet traffic.
The outcome of Manning’s trial could have an impact on the case against Snowden, if he is ever extradited after having fled to Moscow via Hong Kong.
The court-martial has played out under heavy security northeast of Washington at Fort Meade, Maryland, home to the sprawling headquarters of the National Security Agency, which used to employ Snowden as an IT contractor.
Born in Oklahoma to an American father and Welsh mother who later divorced, the slightly built, bespectacled Manning has portrayed himself as a truth teller who leaked a cache of diplomatic cables and military intelligence reports to shed light on U.S. foreign policy excesses.
Manning, exuding a quiet determination, has told the court he believed the reports he saw in his job “needed to be shared with the world” and that it “would help document the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The government, however, has offered a different picture of a reckless traitor who violated his duty as a soldier and who knew from his training that the leaked information could fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda militants.
To back up their argument, prosecutors asserted the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden asked an underling to retrieve documents online that Manning had passed to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks site.
The “aiding the enemy” charge carries a potential life sentence, and some legal scholars and rights groups have accused the government of stretching the limits of the law by including the count.
The case has sparked debate about how the U.S. government should balance secrecy with freedom of expression in the digital era, with possible implications for other leak cases, experts say.