Except for the annoyingly fit people jogging in synchrony and the National Security Agency complex looming above the tree line, Fort Meade looks like anywhere, USA. After passing through security gates, civilian reporters who show up at the Maryland army base are escorted by military police past a sprawling shopping center and vinyl-sided tract housing of the sort found in most exurban developments.
The army base is currently home to the hearings of Private Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst accused of providing hundreds of thousands of military and state department documents to WikiLeaks, the online activist group dedicated to exposing the secrets of anyone with power. As Manning allegedly wrote in an online chat with the hacker who eventually turned him in: "[I] lip-synched to Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history." (The veracity of the chats has not been proven in court, but most consider them genuine.)
The most famous releases included the video WikiLeaks dubbed "Collateral Murder," which depicted a US helicopter gunship firing indiscriminately into a crowded Baghdad street, leaving 13 dead, including a Reuters journalist. In the chat logs, Manning allegedly said he hoped the leaks "might actually change something." Other leaks included on-the-ground accounts of incidents in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and diplomatic cables from state department officials. None of the leaks were top secret material, and a majority weren't even classified, but the Obama administration and the military have gone after Manning with disturbing ferocity anyway.
Manning was arrested in May 2010 and, before his present incarceration at Fort Meade, he underwent a lengthy stint at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. At Quantico, Manning was subjected to treatment that 250 American legal scholars (including one of President Obama's mentors) described in a protest letter as "cruel and inhumane." Manning was subjected to forced nudity, 24-hour camera surveillance, harassment under the guise of concern for his well-being, and months long solitary confinement, despite model behavior.
Manning's transfer to Fort Meade marked the beginning of a seemingly endless series of pretrial hearings. These are held on an older part of the base, where the housing and administrative buildings are redbrick. Seventy-six reporters from dozens of outlets descended on the base during the first day of hearings in December 2011. By the second day, the number of journalists fell to 41. The numbers have only dwindled as the interminable process has dragged on.
On a muggy morning a month ago, the shriveled pool of reporters consisted of representatives from Al Jazeera, the Associated Press, Courthouse News, and a French wire service, along with me, an independent correspondent representing The Stranger. The driver of the WikiLeaks truck, which rolls around the country covered in garish messages in favor of Manning and WikiLeaks, was there, too, smiling impishly and acting as an unofficial courtroom artist. Also in attendance was Firedoglake blogger Kevin Gosztola, who has stuck with the process throughout and cowritten a book (with the Nation's Greg Mitchell) about Manning's case, Truth and Consequences: The U.S. vs. Bradley Manning.
These few remaining reporters made light of the low attendance. "Still no one from the New York Times," someone snorted derisively. Another reporter noted that there wasn't even a representative from the Guardian, a progressive British paper that has taken a particular interest in the case. Manning's case has struggled to maintain sustained public interest since day one. Even the Obama administration's tacit condoning of Manning's unconstitutional punishments gained little attention until blogger Glenn Greenwald began writing about it. Even then, debate and concern were largely relegated to activist groups and politically inclined journalists. Unlike, say, the crappy economy or health-care reform, issues of civil liberties or foreign policy lack the blatantly obvious implications for the wider population. In that light, it isn't particularly surprising that the pretrial hearings have been reduced, in most media, to a nonstory.
Inside the courtroom, hulking guards idled around the exits. When Manning entered the chambers, a new batch of burly guards materialized throughout the courtroom, establishing a wall of muscle between the gallery and the prisoner. Manning's escorts towered above him, emphasizing the prisoner's slight build (he is five foot two and very slender).
While the pretrial hearings are going by largely unobserved, this series of skirmishes will decide the legal terrain on which the eventual trial will be fought. The defense, led by David Coombs, is attempting to get the 22 charges reduced or rejected, especially the most serious one, Article 104: aiding the enemy. (The enemy Manning aided was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the military alleges.) While this charge is akin to treason, and could incur the death penalty, the military is not seeking that outcome.
Coombs challenged the aiding the enemy charge and argued that, if it is found that he did unintentionally aid the enemy, such a ruling would set a precedent where future cases involving whistle-blowing or minor leaking could result in the death penalty. "Our society values life more than that: If we take someone's life away, we'll take it for an intentional act," Coombs insisted. While military judge Colonel Denise Lind refused to drop the Article 104 charge, she seemed sympathetic to the concern.
Thus far, the hearings have suggested little hope for Manning and his supporters. All charges still stand. In a particular blow to the defense, Colonel Lind disallowed evidence showing that Manning's alleged leaks were not detrimental to national security. The prosecution insisted that "the crime is complete" as soon as a leak takes place, although the judge retorted that "the crime is complete only if the offense if proven." There are at least three more rounds of pretrial hearings left—another week beginning August 27, then a day in September, and then another week in October. It will be this last round where Coombs will attempt to hold the military responsible for Manning's treatment at Quantico. The defense will move to dismiss all charges because of the undeniably heinous treatment Manning suffered at Quantico, and if that does not work, Coombs will likely motion for Manning's treatment to be used as credit against potential sentencing.
The defense also noted Manning's psychological struggles related to the military's ban on gay and transgender soldiers. Manning was arrested seven months before President Obama signed the legislation that led to the lifting of "don't ask, don't tell." In his alleged chat logs, Manning wrote, "I wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn't for the possibility of having pictures of me... plastered all over the world press... as [a] boy." As has been widely reported, a month before his arrest, Manning sent an e-mail to his sergeant major saying that he believed he suffered from gender identity disorder and attached a photo of himself as a woman, and after his arrest, information about female hormone treatments was found among his belongings. But his lawyers have said he wants to be referred to as a man, and the armchair psychoanalyzing that so many have indulged in regarding his gender is ultimately irrelevant.
Whether Manning is guilty or not, whether he should be prosecuted or lauded, whether he is a whistle-blower or an indiscriminate dumper of information, it is clear that Manning's case is an example of a larger trend in American society: The powerless and economically vulnerable are held to punishingly harsh standards, while the rich and powerful get away with a slap on the wrist (if that). Steal $100 of food from the grocery store? You go to jail. Steal $10,000 from your employees through shady employment practices? Worst thing that happens is you might have to pay them back (but probably not). If an antipoverty organization is involved in a scandal, Congress cuts off its funding. But if a big bank indulges in racist lending practices to line the pockets of its executives, it gets a stipulation-free bailout.
This inequality of accountability, as MSNBC host Chris Hayes defines this trend, is one of the most disturbing aspects of Manning's case.
Manning may spend the rest of his life in jail for allegedly leaking low-level information about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the public, but that is information that has caused little, if any, harm to anyone. But the high-ranking officials who lied to get the United States to go to war with Iraq, or who ordered the torture of human beings, or who allowed extrajudicial killings of American citizens—they're not even accused of crimes, let alone charged. Manning gets stripped naked in solitary confinement while the powerful get lucrative book deals.
Bradley Manning's court martial is not likely to be held until February 2013. By that point, he will have been imprisoned without sentencing for more than 1,000 days.