He faces 22 charges, including a military charge of aiding the enemy, which could send him to prison for life without parole. He is also charged with violating the Espionage Act, a 1917 law created to try spies and traitors, which carries severe penalties.
There was a crowd of more than thirty Manning supporters protesting at the main gates of Fort Meade in Maryland in the rain to mark the start of the trial. Protesters held signs like “free Bradley Manning” and “Does America Have a Conscience.”
In pretrial proceedings, Manning admitted leaking the material, saying he intended to “spark a domestic debate over the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.” He has offered to plead guilty to 10 lesser charges relating to the misuse of classified information, which could send him to prison for 20 years.
The prosecution’s insistence on proceeding with the two most serious charges, with their harsh penalties, has led even some critics of Manning’s actions to question whether the government is going too far.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, called Manning’s leaks “reckless” and “a data dump.” But she said that “he is not an enemy of the state” and that putting him behind bars for life “is overreaching.”
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said he was shocked the government proceeded after the plea offer. “It is like hitting Manning with a sledgehammer,” he said. “They have him for 20 years, and then they go for life. Twenty years is enough for a pound of Manning’s flesh.”
For its part, the prosecution said Manning must be held accountable. “Pfc. Manning was a U.S. analyst who we trained and trusted to use multiple intelligence systems . . . and he used that training to defy our trust,” Army Maj. Ashden Fein, a prosecutor, said in one pretrial hearing.
Manning, he said, “knowingly engaged in a six-month-long criminal enterprise of harvesting classified information” to send to WikiLeaks, “while knowing and understanding that enemies would have access to the information.” The enemies, Fein said, include al-Qaeda.
The differences of opinion over Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, extend to the core of the case. Since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010, he has become a polarizing figure of international stature. Supporters see him as a heroic whistleblower; critics view him as a traitor who harmed the nation and put lives at risk. He is even a figure in a new documentary film that focuses on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid questioning in Sweden about sex crimes that two women have accused him of committing.