The trial of US soldier Bradley Manning has started. He's charged with leaking thousands of secret documents to Wikileaks, some of which allegedly revealed war crimes. But is he a hero or a traitor to the US army?
"If you're a 22-year-old kid from Oklahoma, and you find yourself in a dark room in Iraq, watching grainy videos of possible war crimes and actually sharing your concerns with your supervisors, and they're telling you to look the other way, shut up, your life will become miserable if you keep talking about this stuff, it's easy to see how somebody could actually look at the big picture and think maybe I could, in some small way, change the world for the better."
This is how Jeff Paterson, a member of the grass roots group Courage to Resist, described the situation of US soldier Bradley Manning during his eight-month deployment in Iraq in 2009 - 2010. His trial started on Monday (03.06.2013); he's charged with leaking thousands of secret government documents, diplomatic cables, and military videos to Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.
Whatever the court in Fort Meade, Maryland decides, Manning has already touched the lives of many people, despite the fact that the trial has gotten little coverage from the mainstream US media. But the case has a sizable and passionate following, a coalition of older people who opposed the war in Vietnam and a new generation wedded to Wikileaks.
'Amounting to torture'
Manning was kept in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia since shortly after his arrest in May 2010, and spent much of that time on Prevention of Injury (POI) status, which entailed checks by guards every five minutes.
He was forced to sleep facing a bright light, was not allowed to lean against the wall during waking hours and had his clothes and glasses taken away for speaking angrily to his guards.
After an international outcry over his treatment, he was transferred to a medium-security prison in Ft. Leavenworth in 2011.
In March 2012, UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez formally accused the US government of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment towards Manning after completing a 14-month investigation, and nearly a million people signed a petition demanding Manning be released from the solitary cell.
Emotional pre-trial testimony
Michael Ratner, president of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) in Berlin, attended Manning's pre-trial hearings. The 69-year-old lawyer, who represented Guantanamo prisoners before the US Supreme Court and served as US attorney for Assange, told DW about hearing Manning's testimony.
"It was for me, watching it, the most devastating day I've spent in a courtroom," he said. "I was in tears from beginning to end, watching this young man, having faced some of the most punitive punishment by our government and yet be able to testify with incredible dignity. He was incredibly smart, understood where he was, what was happening to him."
Daniel Ellsberg, a former US Marine who gained fame when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, an inside history of the Vietnam War, was also a regular observer in the courtroom. He praised Manning for releasing a video that shows US servicemen shooting civilians and journalists from a helicopter.
"Helicopter gunners hunting down and shooting an unarmed man in civilian clothes, clearly wounded, in an area where a squad of American soldiers was about to appear - as the helicopter gunners knew - to take custody of anyone remaining living - that shooting was murder. It was a war crime," he said.
But apart from these occasional glimpses in court, Bradley Manning remains a mystery, not least because his lawyer has refused to do interviews.
But critics have been quite vocal, in contrast, casting Manning as mentally unstable and reckless. "He apparently grew up in a dysfunctional home and he was very short - five-foot one or two, 100 pounds, and was bullied and so forth, and I feel sorry for him for all those things," said Robert Turner, co-founder and director of the National Center for Security Law at the University of Virginia. "But that's no excuse for giving away hundreds of thousands of secrets. To me that's the equivalent of walking through a military base and just tossing grenades through windows."
But there is another source that offers a different view. While stationed in Iraq, Manning chatted online with Adrian Lamo, a celebrated computer hacker who had broken into networks at the New York Times, Yahoo and Microsoft. When he learned the FBI was investigating him, Lamo turned himself in, and some critics suspect he then went to work covertly for the federal government - a claim Lamo has denied, though he was the one who reported Manning to federal officials.
Manning and Lamo corresponded for some time during Manning's eight-month deployment near Baghdad, and their chat-logs provide virtually the only personal testimonies from Manning himself to be made public. In them, he describes himself as a sensitive, intelligent, physically small child who initially suffered under an abusive, alcoholic father, before moving to Wales with his mother.
He says he joined the army in order to earn enough money to go to college, and that his computer skills were initially valued. But he felt alienated when he was stationed in Iraq, and struggled with gender identity issues.
"I'm very isolated - lost all of my emotional support channel - family, boyfriend, trusting colleagues. I'm a mess," he wrote 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."
Conscience and confession
He then went on to confide his crisis of conscience and his security breaches to Lamo. "If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain … Or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, … what would you do?"
Paterson, a former marine, can relate to what Manning went through in the military. "I didn't believe what other Marines believed," he told DW. "I was the only person in the regiment certified with our battlefield tactical nuclear warheads. If anything went wrong in Iraq, it would be my job to nuke them all."
Paterson responded by becoming the first US soldier to refuse to fight in the Iraq War, was jailed and eventually discharged. Manning faces a much tougher legal battle. He has told his lawyer that he'd like to get a college degree and go into public service - to make a difference. Regardless of how his trial pans out, he may already have done so.
"It's important that it gets out," Manning wrote to Lamo. "I feel for some bizarre reason it might actually change something."