In the closing arguments, the court martial of Bradley Manning came down to a debate over the meaning of a selfie—a digital photograph the young former intelligence analyst had taken of himself in a full length mirror, smiling while wearing makeup and a bra just days after releasing classified material to Wikileaks.
To prosecutors, the photograph showed clear evidence of Manning’s malice and his determination to aide America’s enemies with one of the largest leaks of classified information in U.S. history. “What you see, your honor, in this picture is not a troubled, anguished or well-intentioned soldier struggling with the consequences of U.S. military action or foreign policy,” said Maj. Ashden Fein, the lead prosecutor. “This is a gleeful, grinning Pfc. Manning.”
For the defense, the very same photograph was a sign of personal torment, not traitorous intent. “What you see there is a young man who is cross dressing,” said Manning’s attorney, David Coombs. “Just maybe that person is smiling because he’s able to be himself at that moment.”
A military judge, Col. Denise Lind, rebuked the prosecutors claims Tuesday by ruling that Manning was not guilty of the government’s most serious charge against him, aiding the enemy, in a decision that amounts to a victory for Manning and his supporters by sparing him an immediate life sentence without the possibility of parole. Manning had previously pled guilty to many of the charges against him, admitting to serial and enormous leaks of classified information.
The judge convicted Manning on nearly all of the lesser charges against him, opening up a sentencing phase of the trail that begins Wednesday that could still put the 25-year-old in a military prison for the rest of his life. She also acquitted him of one count under the espionage act that stemmed from his release of a video that showed a fatal military airstrike in Afghanistan.
From the beginning, the court martial had revolved around the question of Manning’s motivations when he released the information. With most of the facts of his actions agreed to by both sides, prosecutors argued that Manning had intended to harm the country and help Al Qaeda. In one message, repeatedly cited by prosecutors, Manning had joked at the time of his release that “Hillary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack.”
The defense sought to portray Manning as a troubled, isolated and naïve young man who only wanted to call out perceived injustice that he saw in his job as an Iraq-based intelligence analyst for the military. “Nowhere does he discuss, I know the enemy is going to get this,” said Coombs in his closing statement. “He’s solely concentrated on making a difference, changing the way the world operates.”
Manning admitted to delivering hundreds of thousands of classified documents anonymously to Wikileaks, as well as carrying on contemporaneous online chats with a person be believed to be the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, or one of his senior deputies. Manning told the court that neither Assange nor anyone else at Wikileaks ever directed him to make disclosures.
Among the material he leaked were hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables, a video of an airstrikes that killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and classified incident data from both the Iraq and Afghanistan war that recorded casualty numbers.