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A first-hand account of the Bradley Manning trial by local peace activist Niloofar Shambayati.
I spent five days in and around Fort Meade military base in Maryland, attending the first two days of the court martial of the whistleblower, PFC Bradley Manning. The trial started on June 3rd, after Manning has been held for three years of imprisonment, the first eleven months of which were in solitary confinement and under harsh conditions. I had felt compelled to show my support to Manning by stepping inside the only physical space that public could share with him, and to bear witness to his humanism being put on trial. What follows is a reflection on my observations and experiences during my stay at Ft. Meade. I’m putting it out there in the hope that it would encourage all who value justice and human life to help Manning receive as fair a trial as possible (The unofficial transcripts of the proceedings are available at Freedom of Press Foundation, thanks to crowd-sourced funding for courtroom stenographers. In addition, Nathan Fuller writes excellent summaries of each day’s proceedings.).
I arrived at Fort Meade on May 31 to be able to also attend a rally organized by Bradley Manning Support Network and Courage to Resist for Saturday, as a start-off to the International Week of Solidarity with Bradley Manning, during which rallies and other events were to take place in major cities as far as Seoul and Sidney. The hotel I stayed in was in the middle of nowhere and had apparently been built to serve military and correctional facilities’ contractors. Everyone else would stand out, rather uncomfortably. Saturday afternoon, while I was waiting for a taxi to the base, I spotted Daniel Ellsberg. I approached him to express my appreciation for his support of Manning and his life-long work for peace and justice. He offered me a ride, which I gladly accepted. While in the car, he talked about his concerns for sanctions against Iran, and his fear of a U.S. airstrike against my birth-country. I got no chance to ask him what he thought a likely sentence for Manning would be.
Around one thousand people had gathered in front of the main gate of the Ft. Meade military base. In the sweltering heat, people interviewed activist-celebrities, took pictures, and left messages for Manning on a huge piece of white canvas, and went on a one-mile march. Police, of course, were present in large numbers but everyone remained civil throughout. A number of people had been scheduled to speak. A young Iraqi woman from Bradley Manning Support Network asked us to appeal to family and friends to contribute to Manning’s defense fund. So far, the fund has spent one million dollars to cover all the cost, but, since the trial is likely to go on for two more months, the fund needs to be continually replenished through donations.
Anti-War veterans spoke against our wars of aggression and in support of Manning. Retired Colonel Ann Wright gave a passionate speech: “from one Colonel to another,” she urged the judge, Colonel Denise Lind--Manning’s defense team had opted for trial by a military judge, rather than a jury of military personnel--, “to look deep into the law which tells us to whistle blow on our government’s criminal acts and murders committed in other lands in our name.”
Daniel Ellsberg spoke last. He said that he himself had once been called “the most dangerous man in America” but, today, almost no one dares to publicly criticize him for having released the Pentagon Papers. He called Manning an extraordinary man and referred to his assertions that he wanted people “to see the real nature of asymmetrical war.” He also pointed out that of all national TV networks, only Fox was present at the demonstration but that independent and international media were well-represented.
The next day I went to a panel discussion in Washington DC, which was organized around the current assault on whistleblowers and the trial of Manning. Ellsberg and two recent whistle blowers talked about how their truth-telling ruined their careers, reputation, and relationships, in addition to casting fear over their lives. They said they all felt an obligation to continue to speak out and support Manning and other whistle blowers. They made an important point that the government refused to call them whistleblowers because of the Whistle Blowers Protection Enhancement Act and the fact that the public in general had a positive attitude towards those who blow the whistle on wrongdoings, especially when waste and corruption are involved. Before leaving, I got my black t-shirt, with the word Truth on it, which many supporters of Manning would wear during the pre-trial proceedings.
Monday morning, as I was once again waiting for my taxi, I saw a young woman who, while rushing out of the hotel, asked me if I wanted to share a ride with her. Puzzled, I said, “but where are you going?”—she pointed to her black t-shirt. In my rush to join her, I spilled my coffee all over me and left my umbrella behind. Vivien was a film maker from L.A., who’s been interviewing a number of whistleblowers for a new documentary. She took a DVD out of her purse, which had a picture of the young Fidel Castro with a small group of young men on it--right after the Cuban Revolution, all happy and glowing with pride and self-confidence. She pointed to a man who was sitting behind a desk and said, “that’s my father.” That was all very exciting but I was unprepared for what transpired a few hours later, while some of us were waiting in a trailer to be taken to the court at some later time. I was sitting next to a man, named Bill, who introduced himself as a lawyer from San Francisco. I told him that I had studied history, and he said he did too and that he was in the process of writing a book on Cuban revolutionaries. I love serendipity; I tapped Vivien on the shoulder and the two started to talk. As it turned out, Bill had been looking for information on Vivien’s father and had even gone to her website but, for some reason, had been unable to reach her. This is the kind of things that can happen at the meetings of Manning’s supporters; so go to couple of days of his trial; you may find something you’ve been looking for. I, for one, found several new truly like-minded friends.
We got to the main gate, where a vigil was going to be held every day of the trial. At 8:00 am the gate opened; after cars were searched and identification cards were copied, we were led inside the base, which seemed like a small city. When we reached the last checkpoint, the guards told everyone to take their “Truth” t-shirts off. I started to address the irony of keeping Truth out of the courtroom, but was hushed by a man in line who was afraid we would all be prevented from attending the trial. I turned my shirt inside out and silently waited in line.
Although the base has several large courtrooms, not surprisingly, Manning’s trial is taking place in one with a maximum capacity of 50, leaving twenty seats for the public. A few individuals, who were ahead of me, went inside; the rest of us were given two options: watch the live-streaming of the proceedings in either an auditorium or a trailer. We had no clue which option would increase our chances to get inside the courtroom, and how we could find out when seats became available. I opted for the trailer and waited with about twenty others for the trial to start at 9:30 am. The waiting allowed us to get to learn about each other and truly bond, which has remained strong. At 10:20 am the courtroom appeared on the screen. A calm and focused Manning was examining the files in front of him and exchanging words with his defense team, led by David Coombs, a civilian military lawyer.
The judge asked the prosecutor if the media had been accommodated fully in order to be able to cover the trial. The answer was, “Yes, ma’am.” But we knew otherwise: the government had done its best to limit the number of reporters. The Prosecutor’s opening remarks reflected government’s determination to convict Manning of espionage which, in the vaguely-and-broadly-defined Espionage Act of 1917, is defined as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” and can entail a life sentence. Manning was portrayed as an unpatriotic and irresponsible man who had no regards for the rule of law and had endangered national security and the lives of the troops and other Americans, at the behest of WikiLeaks. In contrast, David Coombs focused on Manning’s humanistic values which had led him to expose war crimes and our government’s support for friendly dictatorial regimes. He also discussed Manning’s idealism for thinking the revelations might start a national discussion about our wars and foreign policy.
I was struck by the sudden realization that the man who had reported Manning to the government, may turn out to be his savior too. Manning had a week-long chat exchanges with Adrian Lamo, a hacker, WikiLeaks sympathizer, and LGBT activist, during which he had confided in him about his motivations for leaking the classified documents. Lamo turned Manning in to the authorities and has seen been ostracized for it. Given the almost certainty that sooner or later the government would have found Manning as the source of the leaks, without these chats, the defense would not have had any evidence to support Manning’s assertions that his motives were noble.
After the opening remarks, the court went into a long recess, during which Colonel West and Chris Hedges arrived from New York. We had a lively discussion with them over corporate media’s character assassination of Manning in order to divert public’s attention from the troubling content of the leaks and the vital role independent media plays in disseminating information. Before the resumption of the proceedings, Colonel Wright, who had taken it upon herself to keep track of the number of people who exited the courtroom, informed us that there were enough seats in the courtroom for all of us and that we should get ready for the final inspection.
Once inside the courtroom, we realized that Manning was forbidden to turn his head to view the attendees and, to ensure supporters would not be able to even make eye contact with Manning, two guards were stationed between Manning and the public. As soon as the judge resumed the trial, the two guards sat down on a side bench. A number of the prosecution’s witnesses, private contractors and military personnel, testified to their expertise in forensic information-gathering and answered a series of technical questions in order to prove Manning guilty of all the charges he had already accepted. The court went into recess for the day at 5:30 pm.
The next morning at the checkpoint, I noticed a few people with the Truth t-shirts. One of them told me that David Coombs had talked to the judge and she had ordered the security to readmit the Truth shirts into the court. I was offered a t-shirt for the day, which I gladly put on. I got a chance to ask the guards what criteria they were told to use to determine the inappropriateness of images and messages on people’s shirts. They answered: If they smack of propaganda.
Unlike the day before, everyone in line was able to enter the courtroom for the start of the morning session. Two witnesses answered prosecutor’s questions on the process of having retrieved the files Manning had deleted from his documents. Next, the prosecutor called Adrian Lamo to testify. A young man awkwardly walked by the audience towards the witness stand. He took his oath and sat down; I felt a chill going down my spine. I decided right away that I could not despise this man who obviously was conflicted about what he had done. His eyes were red and he looked sick; even his black suit seemed to want to distance itself from him. The prosecutor asked Lamo about his past hacking activities, arrest, and serving time. He then moved on to Lamo’s mental conditions and whether any of his problems or medications could bring about loss of memory.
In his cross-examination, the defense asked Lamo to either confirm or reject a series of statements, which were based on Manning-Lamo chats. Lamo confirmed that Manning had expressed humanistic motivations for leaking the classified documents and rejected the suggestion that Manning had ever expressed anti-America sentiments. Lamo also confirmed that he had asked Manning why he had not sold the documents to either Russia or China, and that Manning had responded that the information belonged in public domain and was for public good, not for profit. Lamo was excused permanently and a lunch recess was announced. During the afternoon session, the prosecutor unsuccessfully brought two cases to the attention of the court in support of two government’s contentions: that Manning had a history of disregard for classified information and that, while in training, he and others had been told not to visit WikiLeaks site. Both were proved untrue. I had been sitting next to a friendly-looking female soldier, who worked for the defense team. I asked her in writing, if she could tell Manning we loved him and will stand with him all the way. She gave me a smile and said yes.
I left Fort Meade on June 5th but the trial still continues. Deep down, I know, without massive popular support, Manning will not receive justice. A legally-defined-“fair trial,” may be: To be convicted only of the charges to which he himself has confessed. But that’s not justice. Manning violated his Oath of Enlistment and blew the whistle on wrong doings and cover-ups only because he believed the public needed to know the truth in order to demand our foreign policy shift from seeking hegemony to cooperating with other nations. We owe it to him and to our democratic right to know the truth to insist that Bradley Manning be treated justly.