In this courtroom sketch, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning watches at left as his defense attorney, David Coombs, right, speaks in front of military judge Army Col. Denise Lind on the opening day of Manning's court martial.
FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) — The court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the central figure in a massive leak of government documents, is focused on secrecy and government security. Yet his trial has become a secretive drama that allows the public little insight into what’s going on in the military courtroom.
One of the pretrial hearings was closed to the public. Many court documents have been withheld or heavily redacted. Photographers were blocked from getting a good shot of the soldier and even some of Manning’s supporters had to turn their T-shirts inside out.
Military law experts say some of it is common for a court-martial, while other restrictions appear tailored to the extraordinary nature of the case, which has garnered an outpouring of support from whistleblowers, activists and others around the world.
“I think the judge is very concerned about not turning this trial into a theater, into a spectacle,” said David J.R. Frakt, a military law expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a former military prosecutor and defense lawyer. “I cannot remember a situation where there was such a high degree of civilian interest, people not affiliated with the military, having intense and passionate interest in the outcome of the case.”
Manning is charged under federal espionage and computer fraud laws, but the most serious offense the military has accused him of is aiding the enemy, which carries a life sentence. His supporters call him a hero; opponents say he is a traitor for leaking the material the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The trial for the soldier from Crescent, Okla., began Monday under a barrage of heavy restrictions.
Manning supporters wearing “truth” T-shirts had to turn them inside out before entering the courtroom. The shirts were made by the Bradley Manning Support Network in early 2012 as an alternative to “Free Bradley Manning” T-shirts banned from early pretrial hearings, spokesman Nathan Fuller said.
The military allowed the shirts Tuesday. Army spokeswoman Col. Michelle Roberts said the earlier decision made “out of a concern for public safety and to remove a potential cause for disturbance among members of the public.” She said leaders assessed the situation and decided they were OK.
Since the case began, reporters covering hearings have been asked to sign a document saying they would withhold the names of spokespeople on-site because the military said some people directly involved in the case had received death threats. The Associated Press signed the document to be allowed to cover the trial, but the news organization is protesting it.
Photographers looking to snap pictures of Manning Monday missed the soldier leaving the courtroom because he was blocked by military police. On Tuesday, Manning was not surrounded.
The military also relaxed rules Tuesday about interviewing spectators outside the courtroom.
Courts-martial don’t have a roadmap for guaranteeing public access like civilian courts, military law experts said.
The security in the Manning case appears determined to minimize distractions and maintain law-and-order — even if that means throwing up roadblocks to a public accustomed to transparency, experts said.
“I don’t think it’s good to turn the environs into an armed camp unless it is literally unavoidable,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School. “People do occasionally act out in courtrooms, both spectators or witnesses or the accused, but I’m sure that the Army knows how to maintain order, and I’m not sure that it’s necessary to do it with as heavy a hand as seems to be implied here.”
Manning, 25, has admitted turning over hundreds of thousands of classified documents. His lawyer has called him a “young, naive but good-intentioned” soldier, but prosecutors say he put secrets directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden.
His trial, which is being heard by a judge instead of a jury, is expected to run all summer. Parts of it are expected to be closed.
At a pretrial hearing in April, the military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, released written copies of two rulings to reporters. It was the first time since she got the case in February 2012 that she had made her written orders publicly available on a same-day basis.
The lack of public access to rulings and motions is being challenged in federal court by the Center for Constitutional Rights, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and a handful of journalists. Thirty news organizations, including the AP, plan to file a brief this week supporting the case.
In February, the military began releasing Lind’s older rulings amid numerous Freedom of Information Act requests.
The court considers some documents so sensitive that they are stored off-site at locations in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. They will remain there, and even any appellate judges would have to travel to locations such as the Central Intelligence Agency to read them.
Philip Cave, a retired Navy judge advocate general, said it’s not uncommon for portions of military trials to be kept away from the public.
“Does that automatically mean that there’s a lack of transparency or that there’s kind of hiding the ball going on? I don’t think you can argue that,” said Cave, who is now a military defense lawyer. “Then again,” he added, “I don’t necessarily believe my government. I do think they over-classify things.”
The military released about 550 documents on Tuesday, including a photo of a noose Manning made from a bedsheet while he was being detained in Kuwait shortly after his arrest in May 2010.
The noose was presented as evidence at a hearing in December regarding Manning’s confinement at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., to show why jailers there considered him a suicide threat.
For nine months, Manning was held alone in a windowless cell 23 hours a day, sometimes with no clothing. Lind later ruled Manning had been illegally punished and should get 112 days off any prison sentence he receives.
Army spokesman George Wright said there was “no specific trigger” for the release of documents, but the military had been working to process as many records as possible.
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