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Soldier charged in WikiLeaks case seen as hero or traitor, depending on who you ask
FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) ' The document in which Pfc. Bradley Manning allegedly confessed to giving classified information to WikiLeaks also includes a rationale that has made him a hero among peace and anti-secrecy activists worldwide: "I want people to see the truth."
But Manning also apparently understood that if any connection to WikiLeaks was revealed, he might be seen as a traitor, "like Nidal Hassan," the Army major accused of killing 13 soldiers preparing for deployment at Fort Hood, Texas.
Both portraits will be on display during a military hearing starting Friday at this locked-down Army base between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The hearing, which could run for days, will determine whether Manning will be court-martialed on charges that could bring life imprisonment. Prosecutors say they won't seek the maximum penalty of death for the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
The basis for the 22 counts that Manning faces are t
ranscripts of online chats the Army intelligence analyst purportedly initiated in May 2010 with confidant-turned-government-informant Adrian Lamo.
The chats also foreshadowed the divergent public perceptions of the 23-year-old Crescent, Okla., native: Is he a freedom-of-information idealist who rightfully exposed abuses of power? Or a soldier who betrayed his country and comrades-in-arms?
The chat logs, which the military says are authentic, were first published by Wired.com, which got them from Lamo. In them, a writer using the screen name "bradass87" reveals much more than his reasons for divulging classified files to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy website. He discusses his disdain for feeble computer security at his post in Baghdad, his wrenching breakup with a boyfriend in Boston and his struggles as a "super-intelligent, awkwardly effeminate" homosexual trying to survive his conservative upbringing, a broken family, British schooling and military service in the era of "don't ask, don't tell."
"I'm a mess," bradass87 confided to Lamo. "I'm in the desert, with a bunch of hyper-masculine trigger happy ignorant rednecks as neighbors. And the only safe place I seem to have is this satellite internet connection."
Manning's civilian defense attorney, David Coombs, aims to present evidence of Manning's mental and emotional distress to highlight failings in the military chain of command. Prosecutors contend such testimony is irrelevant to the investigation.
The material Manning is suspected of leaking includes hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and a 2007 video clip of a laughing U.S. helicopter crew gunning down 11 men later found to include a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately, having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons.
Coombs contends the leaked material didn't hurt national security and caused little damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite U.S. government claims that it endangered lives and security. Manning supporters say the leaks exposed war crimes and triggered pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.
Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the secret U.S. expansion of the Vietnam War by leaking the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, says Manning is "unreservedly a hero."
"I think that Bradley Manning, if he is found to be the source of this, will deserve our thanks and our admiration," Ellsberg said.
Others say Manning's alleged crimes amount to selling out his fellow soldiers, and that he should be punished as a traitor.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in August 2010 that execution would be an appropriate punishment for what he regarded as treason.
In a more temperate statement last week to The Associated Press, Rogers said he trusts in the military judicial process. Nevertheless, he said: "Leaking classified information and compromising U.S. national security is always an extremely serious offense. The ramifications of leaking classified material can be deadly for our men and woman on the front lines."
Manning's arrest in May 2010 made global headlines and his case has engendered strong sympathy in Europe. In Britain, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has largely been based for the past 18 months, many view WikiLeaks favorably for having exposed the gruesome reality of the deeply unpopular war in Iraq.
But it was the conditions of Manning's eight months in pretrial confinement at a Marine Corps base near Washington that caused his support base to swell. The Quantico brig commander, citing safety and security concerns, kept Manning confined 23 hours a day in a single-bed cell. For several days in March, he was forced to sleep naked. Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union objected, the United Nations' torture investigator began an inquiry and chief State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned after calling the confinement conditions "ridiculous" and "stupid."
British opposition lawmaker Ann Clwyd asked the British government to intervene in Manning's case, saying that "his treatment is cruel and unnecessary and we should be saying so."
Coombs says the conditions at Quantico were illegal; President Barack Obama has defended them as appropriate.
Manning was transferred in April to a medium-security facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Jeff Paterson of the Bradley Manning Support Network called that a victory for Manning supporters.
"That really did motivate people that, whether they appreciated Bradley's alleged actions or not, they realized that his treatment was wrong, and people spoke out," he said.
Paterson said about 5,000 donors worldwide have given about $400,000. The funds are to cover Coombs' estimated fee of $120,000, plus costs for any appeals and expenses linked to demonstrations on Manning's behalf, he said.
Criticism of Manning's treatment hasn't gone away. Last month, 54 members of the European parliament signed an open letter to the U.S. government raising concerns about his pretrial confinement. United Nations chief torture investigator Juan Mendez is preparing to release a report on Manning.
While Europeans are divided on WikiLeaks' confrontational tactics, the view that Manning was motivated by a crisis of conscience holds sway with many international observers.
"We are indebted to him," Swiss human rights investigator Dick Marty said in September. If Manning is guilty as charged, he said, then he "acted as a whistleblower and should be treated as such."
Lamo, whose fame as a former outlaw computer hacker may have prompted Manning to contact him, said he doesn't regret turning him in. He said his actions may have prevented Manning from leaking more classified information.
In the chat logs, bradass87 told Lamo he hoped his leaks would provoke "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms." He said he didn't know how people would see him, as "'hacker, 'cracker,' 'hacktivist,' 'leaker' or what. I'm just me, really."
But he rejected Lamo's suggestion he might be labeled a spy: "Spies don't post things up for the world to see."
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this story.