“First, your honor, I want to start off with an apology,” said Bradley Manning, addressing the court as his defense team wrapped up the sentencing phase of his trial.
“I’m sorry that my actions hurt people and I’m sorry that it hurt the United States. ... When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people."
Manning was speaking out for the first time since March, and his attitude was markedly different from his pre-trial statement.
"How on Earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over those with proper authority?" he said.
On July 30 Manning was convicted of multiple counts of espionage and theft in connection with his release of more than 700,000 pages of documents to WikiLeaks, the largest classified data breach in US history.
He was acquitted of the most serious charge, “aiding the enemy,” which would have given him a mandatory life sentence. The difference could be academic: Manning could still be given up to 90 years in prison, which, even for a 25-year-old, amounts to life behind bars.
The judge, Colonel Denise Lind, is expected to give her decision on sentencing within days.
Both defense and prosecution called witnesses and made arguments to bolster their positions: the prosecution arguing for a harsh sentence due to the harm that Manning caused with his leaks; the defense pleading for leniency due to Manning’s fragile emotional state and the military’s carelessness in allowing such an unstable individual access to classified information.
The government is making no secret of the fact that it would like to lock Manning up and throw away the key. During the sentencing phase, it did its best to reinstate the “aiding the enemy” charge through various witnesses, some of whose testimony was classified and therefore not available to the public.
They were largely unsuccessful.
Navy Commander Youssef Aboul-Enein was presented to the court as an “expert in Al Qaeda, terrorism and ideology” who opined that the WikiLeaks materials had furnished Al Qaeda with valuable training materials suitable for recruitment purposes.
According to Aboul-Enein, Manning’s revelations bolster “a message that the United States does not value life … particularly … Muslim life.” This narrative is used by Al Qaeda to “give a kind of coherence, if you will, to their acts.”
But Aboul-Enein was forced to admit that he could cite no specific instances in which WikiLeaks information could be shown to have appeared in Al Qaeda recruiting materials.
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Attempts by the prosecution to show that the 250,000 diplomatic cables leaked by Manning caused significant harm to US interests were even less successful: the judge threw out testimony by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak, who tried to make the point that the leaked cables had had a “chilling effect” on US relations with clients and allies.
But the judge, Colonel Denise Lind, was having none of it.
“It’s speculative and inadmissible,” she ruled.
The defense registered various objections to witnesses testimony in classified sessions, with mixed results. The judge ruled that any “speculative” testimony would not be considered, but she did hold that some of what she had heard was “admissible aggravation evidence.”
The defense portrayed Manning as a deeply troubled young man who was mocked and rejected by his military colleagues, and who exhibited signs of instability well before the leak of the cables. The military should have taken away his security clearance and barred him from sensitive positions, defense attorneys insisted, painting the US Army as the true culprit in the whole affair.
They certainly had some weighty evidence on their side: Within a five-month period, Manning had had several outbursts while on duty, including flipping over a table containing computers and other equipment, and possibly trying to grab a weapon. He also assaulted a female colleague, had periods of catatonia, and on at least one occasion was found in a fetal position on the floor of a closet with an unsheathed knife at his feet.
None of these incidents resulted in administrative action. It was not until Manning sent his superior a candid email confessing to his gender identity issues that things started to move.
The email, with the subject line “my problem,” included a photograph of Manning in a long blonde wig and makeup.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Manning wrote. “The only ‘help’ that seems to be available is severe punishment and/or getting rid of me.”
That got his superior, Master Sergeant Paul Adkins, thinking that perhaps something was wrong.
The email, dated April 24, 2010, came after Manning had started sending documents to WikiLeaks, but before the Army repealed its policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Being openly gay was an offense punishable by dishonorable discharge or court-martial.
Adkins still did not inform his own superiors until June, which led to his subsequent demotion. By then Manning was behind bars.
The defense called psychologists who detailed Manning’s suffering in the “hyper-masculine military” and painted him as a naïve idealist.
“Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars,” said Navy Captain Dr. David Moulton, according to Twitter feeds from journalists covering the trial.
That did not happen; but for some researchers Manning’s leaks have proved valuable.
Frank Ledwidge, a British researcher and author, has just released the book “Investment in Blood,” documenting the cost of the war in Afghanistan for the British in blood and treasure. Most reviews have focused on the treasure: Ledwidge estimates that the Afghan war cost each British household 2,000 pounds sterling, approximately $3,096.
The cost in blood has also been significant. More than 440 British soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and an untold number of Afghans. Ledwidge estimates, based on published reports “and a good look at WikiLeaks,” that the British killed at least 500 Afghan civilians in Helmand Province alone.
But Ledwidge is the first to admit that his published assessments of civilian casualties are extremely conservative. Judging by private conversations with multiple military officers, he calculates that the total is exponentially higher.
“We killed a lot of people, I think,” Ledwidge quotes an unnamed Army officer as saying of the Helmand campaign. “Many of them might have been the wrong people.”
The United States, with its greater resources, would certainly have much higher counts, Ledwidge said. The United States has still not released any credible totals of civilians killed by their forces.
But using WikiLeaks as a reference, researchers can begin to compile a record of civilian casualties, although even this is far from perfect.
Take the bombing of the village of Baghni, in Helmand Province, in August, 2007.
According to documents released by WikiLeaks, this was called “Operation Jang Baz,” and involved a “major shura” being conducted by the Taliban.
The US military, convinced several High-Value Individuals (HVIs) were in the area, dropped six 2,000-lb bombs, or “ precision guided munitions effectively destroying the primary target location.”
The military proudly proclaimed that an “estimated 75-100 fighters and multiple Taliban commanders” were killed.
However, according to local journalists, the “major shura” was a weekly market, and the attack killed at least 200 civilians, including children. Afghan reporters filed stories with photographs documenting the injuries, with quotes from villagers and Afghan police.
No high-level Taliban were ever shown to have been killed in the operation, nor has the US military ever acknowledged the extent of the tragedy.
Manning has been treated extremely harshly from the beginning; he was held in conditions approaching torture, according to the UN, and the charge of “aiding the enemy” was seen by many as an overreach.
The Pentagon, the State Department and the White House have all been embarrassed by WikiLeaks. So far, if Manning’s trial is any guide, this is the most significant damage that anyone has been able to prove.
It remains to be seen how severely Manning will be punished for it.