Transcript: Alexa O’Brien Interview
HARRY SHEARER INTERVIEWS ALEXA O’BRIEN
LE SHOW, MAY 5, 2013
Listen to the podcast here.
Interview recorded Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
HARRY SHEARER: This is Le Show, and you may have heard the name of Private Bradley Manning here and there for over the last couple of years, but I’ll wager that if you’re like me, or if you just plain like me, you probably haven’t heard much coverage of what’s been going on with him in most of the media. We’re going to try to rectify that situation today. I have a guest in New York City who has been resolute if not absolutely determined in her coverage of the legal proceedings involved with Bradley Manning, and she’s going to take us through it and tell us what’s been happening with him. Alexa O’Brien, welcome to Le Show.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Thank you for having me.
HARRY SHEARER: Let me start by sort of setting the table and saying what I think I know, and then correct me and then we’ll go from there.
Bradley Manning was a private in the Army, got sent over to Iraq in an intelligence position where he had access to the same information that as I understand it about 400,000 Americans are cleared to have access to. In that position he saw information that was increasingly distressing to him regarding America’s role in the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and other activities, and he ultimately liberated that material, is one way of putting it, the government says stole it, and made it available over a period of time anonymously to the WikiLeaks organization.
And what was released was first of all a videotape called Collateral Murder showing U.S. helicopter crews killing folks from the air, including one or two people from the Reuters news service, and then coming back and shooting at the rescuers who were coming in to tend to the bodies of those who had been originally killed, a videotape which came to be known as Collateral Murder, and then sequentially released war logs from the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, and ultimately, about 250,000 is the number that comes to mind, diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies and legations abroad to Washington which were profoundly embarrassing to the United States and to certain foreign leaders.
And at some point he went into contact with an anonymous chatter on a chat board, Internet chat link, who I believe assured Private Manning that the conversation should be treated as if he was talking to a priest or a doctor, that it was confidential and confessional in nature, and that person turned out to be a once-convicted hacker named Adrian Lamo who at some point decided to change his position on the material and went to the FBI and told them of what was going on. Private Manning was arrested, served for about 11 months in – despite the fact that he was an Army private – in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia, in conditions that some people have described as abusive, and is now undergoing pre-military-trial proceedings.
And Alexa O’Brien, you have been covering those proceedings scrupulously and in depth.
First of all, do I have anything wrong about the background?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yeah, there’s a couple of things.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: I just wanted, just because the scale is important – actually 4 million federal employees and contractors –
HARRY SHEARER: Mmm!
ALEXA O’BRIEN: – have access to the level of information that Manning leaked. Manning leaked Secret to below, so he actually leaked unclassified material as well. In fact, the video that you referred to, Collateral Murder, is unclassified, and also defense will argue contains a transcript that was published in a 2009 book by David Finkel at the Washington Post, so these were before the charged offenses against Manning. So the question is, for that piece of material, is really how closely held was this quote unquote national security information? The other thing is that half a million individuals, according to the Washington Post, had access to the State Department cables that Bradley Manning leaked, so these were marked SIPDIS, which means they were similarly low-level classified or unclassified e-mails or cables by the State Department and were intended for wide distribution outside of the network that Manning had access to them on.
HARRY SHEARER: So nothing Top Secret.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: No, and in fact if you compare that to Daniel Ellsberg’s leak, he did leak Top Secret material. Bradley Manning didn’t.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay. So, now his pretrial proceedings commence, and how do you become involved in all of this? What’s your background?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: I had been covering the WikiLeaks releases from late 2010 into early 2011 and so I had, you know, covered Manning’s nine months of confinement at Quantico where the judge actually ruled that his treatment was unlawful in her recent ruling, and I went to the pretrial and nobody was covering this trial. This is the largest leak trial in U.S. history. You know, in the secular age of information, we’re going through a type of Reformation of sorts, and these source documents are in a certain sense our Bible in the vernacular language so to speak, and so this is such an important trial and no one was covering it in the way in which I felt that this story needed to be covered, so I started to actually transcribe the trial that was being conducted in secrecy with no public docket.
HARRY SHEARER: So when you say in secrecy, but you were allowed to attend proceedings – this is at Fort Meade, is that right?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s right. There are what they call Article 39(a) sessions that are open to the public. However, there’s no public docket for this trial. So whereas in a federal criminal investigation you would go into the PACER system and if a defendant filed something or if a plaintiff filed something, you could read the filing, you could read the court ruling, here we don’t have access to that. In fact, we don’t have access to over 30,000 pages of filings. I have reconstructed the appellate list that doesn’t exist and it looks like we have 518 appellate exhibits that we know of. Of those 518 appellate exhibits, we probably have access to about 10 court rulings, a smattering of defense filings, and no government filings at all.
HARRY SHEARER: This is being held under the military commissions legislation – is that the umbrella for this proceeding?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: This is being held under Title X. This is essentially a court martial process –
HARRY SHEARER: Ah.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: – for a soldier in the armed forces. In this case the trial is being conducted by the U.S. Army’s First Judicial Circuit, and the trial judge, Colonel Denise Lind, is essentially the chief judge for that circuit.
HARRY SHEARER: And what’s the normal procedure for court martial trials? Are they similarly held closely in secret and with no public docket?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yes. I mean there is, there certainly is, according to the military expert from the Pentagon, this is standard protocol for lack of access to public documentation of the court filings. However, in a trial of this stature and importance with regard to the First Amendment, Bradley Manning has been charged in a way that has never been seen in military court martials. He’s also been charged with unauthorized disclosure to the press, and his charges include eight or nine charges of espionage as well as aiding the enemy. This trial is of great public interest, and today however we lost our case against the military judge to actually have access to those filings.
HARRY SHEARER: Let me just backtrack for one second, a question that’s always lodged in my mind since I started following this story: Why was an Army private held for any length of time in a Marine Corps penitentiary or brig?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s a very good question, and I have an answer for that. For one thing, if you look at where the headquarters for Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, it’s actually at Quantico.
HARRY SHEARER: Mmm.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: And so I suspect that they brought him to this run-down brig at Quantico not only to put pressure on him but also because they wanted him to be close to the organization that was leading the military investigation in partnership with the Departments of Justice and State.
HARRY SHEARER: But of course in the intervening time he has been moved to an Army brig and has been serving pretrial time there. What’s the – you’ve been keeping very close – among the things that you keep rigorous count of is the number of days that he has been in pretrial confinement. It’s way over – it’s way over 300. Is it over 500 at this point?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Bradley Manning has been in pretrial confinement for more than 1,000 days.
HARRY SHEARER: Jeez!
ALEXA O’BRIEN: By the time of his trial he will have been in pretrial confinement for 1,101 days, and in fact he has been in pretrial confinement longer than any other accused awaiting court martial in U.S. military history.
HARRY SHEARER: I think all of us who went to school in this country remember there’s a part of the Constitution that guarantees a speedy trial. That has been litigated in this case. What’s been the result of that?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: The judge ruled that his speedy trial rights had not been violated.
What’s so interesting about the Manning case, in context with the federal investigation into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, a media organization in the digital age, as well as the sort of socioeconomic changes that have been happening with essentially the maturation of the game generation or the digital generation, you know, vis-à-vis the boomers, is the fact that in many regards this trial encompasses a joining together of all the major issues of our age in the post-9/11 world. For example, the entire interagency process has been zeroed in on this young soldier and the WikiLeaks organization in probably one of the largest criminal investigations in U.S. history, and yet the press hasn’t been covering it.
HARRY SHEARER: Before we get into the details of the pretrial proceedings, one more question about that. As you sit there day after day working your way through these proceedings and creating these transcripts, what’s your best guess as to why the rest of the press isn’t covering this?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: I think this has multiple layers to it. I think on one sense, if we look at it purely from the bottom-line perspective, is that WikiLeaks represents a challenge to the market power that the mainstream media organizations have over audiences. And of course you know it costs a lot of money up-front to produce news and especially investigative journalism and entertainment. It costs relatively little in the digital age to distribute it. And so therefore control of audiences is very, very important as these media organizations enter this new era. So I think that they’ve taken a defensive posture towards WikiLeaks because of that fundamentally, and I think also it’s a question of access to information. I mean, WikiLeaks, the reason why it’s so revolutionary is that it allows the janitor to leak and not simply the high-level Obama administration authorized leak to, you know, Bob Woodward, so to speak, to sell war or a particular political agenda of the elites. So there’s a lot going on here that is reason for them not to cover it.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay. Let’s go to the charges. Now, some time ago earlier this spring Private Manning pleaded guilty to I believe around 10 of the charges in his indictment and made a statement, which was the first time he had been heard from since this whole process began, a statement which subsequently was leaked, the recording of which was leaked.
Bradley Manning clip: [difficult audio; Alexa’s transcript is here]: I read not only the cables on Iraq, but also about countries and events I found interesting. The more I read, the more I was fascinated by the way we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think they documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world.
HARRY SHEARER: The charges he pled guilty to were what? And as you say, remaining before him are charges that are much more serious including violation of the Espionage Act which carries a possible death sentence.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s right. Bradley Manning pled to nine lesser included offenses of the Espionage Act and one violation of a lawful general regulation or order under Article 92, which is essentially that, you know, lawful general regulation or a lawful order. In the case of the Espi– he pled to every lesser included offense for every espionage charge against him except for what was called spec 11 of charge 2, which relates to the Garani video, and that dovetails into the grand jury investigating WikiLeaks, and there’s a reason why he didn’t. He pled not guilty to stealing U.S. government property. He pled not guilty to the multiple charges of – there’s two charges of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which are very provocative charges because he had access; he didn’t hack anything. He also pled not guilty to the aiding the enemy charge. And then he pled not guilty to one of the more provocative and disturbing charges against him. It’s never been used before. In fact it’s not tied to any existing federal criminal violation or punitive article under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s what’s called “wantonly publishing.”
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
ALEXA O’BRIEN: (laughs)
HARRY SHEARER: I think we both of us do that every day.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yeah. That’s why it’s so terrifying.
HARRY SHEARER: Mmhmm.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: But the crazy thing about this charge is that the knowledge element parallels the knowledge element in the aiding the enemy charge, so it essentially dovetails into aiding the enemy.
HARRY SHEARER: Now, “wantonly publishing” is actually legislative language in some law?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Well, in oral arguments early on in the pretrial, the government argued that it was, you know, in terms of punishment that it was analogous to espionage but that it was far, far worse than espionage. And the defense came back and said, “This is a made-up offense. This shouldn’t be allowed.” So, you know, one of the reasons why I’ve been covering it as, I guess, intently is because there are such important things going on here and, you know, I want to empower other people, subject matter experts in military law for example, to be able to actually make commentary on this in a way that’s useful and valuable to the public.
HARRY SHEARER: So you’ve been wantonly covering it.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: I’ve been wantonly covering it and publishing transcripts.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah. The part that’s attracted my attention most recently has been discussion on this aiding the enemy charge, and I believe much of the recent proceedings have been involved with the judge ruling on elements of this in preparation for going forward with trial. Take us through some of that. What has she ruled and what’s in and what’s out regarding the aiding the enemy charge.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Essentially she says that the only thing the government needs to prove to convict Manning of the aiding the enemy charge is that he had knowledge that he was dealing either directly or indirectly with the enemy. In this case it’s indirectly, and according to the bill of particulars, which is like a legal document that the government, the prosecutor has to give the accused so that he knows what he’s being charged with, the indirect means is via the WikiLeaks website. The judge recently ruled that receipt was required, receipt of this information was required to prove aiding the enemy. Manning has been charged with giving intelligence to the enemy, according to this recent court ruling, not communicating with the enemy. There’s different types of aiding the enemy.
And the problem for Manning with this particular ruling is the fact that the government is going to introduce a classified witness who they’ve named John Doe who was involved in the raid of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and this gentleman is going to come into court, from what we know, and say – or he’s actually going to come into an offsite location in a light disguise dressed in civilian clothes with the name John Doe, and he’s going to essentially say that, you know, all the Afghan war logs as well as State Department information was found on Osama bin Laden’s computer or some digital media. It involved a letter, correspondence between Osama bin Laden and somebody else, and that that is sort of essentially proving not only aiding the enemy, but – once again we come back to this provocative charge – it will also prove, according to the government, “causing to be published.”
HARRY SHEARER: Now, what WikiLeaks did with this material depended on which of the releases we’re talking about. In some cases they published via the New York Times, The Guardian, El País. In other cases they published concurrently with those newspapers or with a couple of those newspapers and on their own website. But establishment media have been involved in the release or publication of much of this material. Do we know at this point whether what was found on Osama bin Laden’s computer were the documents themselves or reports of them as published by the New York Times or The Guardian?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: We don’t know. All we know is basically one reference made that was a descriptor by the government when it was talking to the judge in a colloquy about even admitting this evidence; they wanted to have a classified review in camera, which is in chambers with the judge to sort of talk about this evidence. And we know that it consisted of the Afghan war logs and State Department information.
HARRY SHEARER: So theoretically – I’m speculating here – the evidence could constitute the presence on Osama bin Laden’s computer of stories from the New York Times and The Guardian which included reports on some of this information.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Absolutely. You know, it’s interesting because I think Glenn Greenwald, a highly respected former Constitutional lawyer and journalist, has said that, you know, Bob Woodward writes books that have Top Secret classified information in it, and Osama bin Laden has produced videos recommending to everybody to read Obama’s War by Bob Woodward – what’s the difference here?
HARRY SHEARER: Okay, what are some of the other issues that have been dealt with in the pretrial proceedings that you’ve been covering?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: One of the other issues earlier on that I really was disappointed there wasn’t enough serious – any, or enough serious coverage of, was the fact that the State Department has really been, in my own words, a bit of a puppet master in this military prosecution of Manning. The criminal investigation of Bradley Manning encompasses the Department of State, the Departments of Justice and Defense. The Department of Defense is leading the military prosecution of Bradley Manning. At the Article 32, which is akin to a military version of a grand jury, essentially everybody else had to leave the courtroom except for members of the Department of State and presumably the Department of Justice for these closed sessions. [The] defense had tried to get information from the Department of State, and they were basically pressuring the military prosecutor to prevent the defense from getting this discovery, namely the damage assessments or the quote unquote lack of damage assessments and the like. And they even came into court and testified that they weren’t aware who amongst them had actually testified to the U.S. Congress about WikiLeaks. So their enormous role in this global multi-agency investigation of not only Manning and WikiLeaks and yet the lack of recognition of their importance and significance in this investigation, combined with the fact that they are looking to prosecute, along with the FBI, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is very troubling.
HARRY SHEARER: Now, a couple questions following up on that. One, I think the casual observer can be permitted for thinking during all this time that the United States government was treating Bradley Manning, shall we say, without the usual niceties of pretrial confinement in an effort to get him to crack to aid the government in its prosecution or its proposed prosecution of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Has that been borne out by what you’ve seen so far?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yeah, it really has. I mean, for one thing, if you look at the fact that Manning did not plead guilty to specification 11 of charge 2 – I had mentioned that earlier on – that relates to the Garani video, or alleged Garani video, although it’s pretty clear because that’s been said in testimony by agents, and –
HARRY SHEARER: The Garani video is what we call Collateral Murder, or is it a different video?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: No, it’s another video. It was never published by WikiLeaks. Essentially this is a video of a – an agent said it’s a flight over battle space, but the Garani air strike in May 2009 killed hundreds of women and children in the Farah province of Afghanistan. Human rights organizations refer to it as Judgment Day. And it was a very damning incident. The Pentagon had said that they were going to release the video and then they backtracked from it.
And so essentially the timeline of this offense within the Manning case starts in November, early November 2009, and it spans until about January 8th, which is when we know WikiLeaks tweet, you know, “Have encrypted” – I don’t know the exact tweet but it was basically “Have encrypted video, you know, need super computer time to decrypt.” Well the reason why – you know, Manning had come into court during the pretrial sessions in a period of court where the accused comes in and sort of says, “I might plead to this and I might plead to that,” and then the court says, “Well, that’s a proper plea,” “That wouldn’t be a proper plea.” Well, he came to court and he says, “I might plead to specification 11, but in April, the same time that I might” – and he eventually did – “plead to spec 10,” which included like videos of burn victims and women and children and all the sort of carnage after this Garani air strike, but they were like JPEGs and images and the 15-6 investigation and things like that. And the government came back and said, “Well, we have actually forensic evidence for a November transmission and an April transmission and we could charge him two times.” And the defense said, “It only happened once, and it was on April the 10th or 11th of 2010.”
And that’s why Manning didn’t plead guilty to that charge, because if you look at the November timeline, it actually feeds right into the timeline of all the public documents that we have from the grand jury investigating Julian Assange and, what we know from the Manning trial, seven civilians being investigated by the FBI for criminal behavior or wrongdoing. Those dates for those what they call 2703D orders, which are essentially secret subpoenas for information from Twitter of the IP addresses for logging on and the, you know, any kind of metadata or –
HARRY SHEARER: Identifying information on the –
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Identifying inf– yes, thank you. Those also start in that November 1, 2009 timeframe. So this really is an attempt to get Manning to plead – I mean there’s a pressure on him. He has 22 charges against him. He’s been kept longer than any other accused. There is certainly the pressure of prosecutorial power upon him to plea out, to get Julian Assange in some kind of conspiracy.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay. Backtracking on another note. I glossed over the details of the conditions of Manning’s confinement, which, as you noted, a judge had later ruled was unlawful. Take us through the treatment that he experienced during those nine months at Quantico.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Bradley Manning was at Marine Corps Base Quantico brig for nine months, from July 29, 2010 until I think April 20, 2011. And while he was there he was on what’s called prevention of injury watch and suicide risk. They’re two different statuses and they allow the brig to do certain things to him. In the case of suicide risk, he’s stripped and he has to put on this basically suicide smock, and he was also precluded from being able to go outside for many, many months except for like I think it was 15 or 20 minutes. And when he first got there he had admittedly tried to – he’d thought about suicide while he was in Kuwait, where he was housed in this cage and, you know, he didn’t have access to his lawyer and he sort of had a bit of a basically a mental breakdown. But by the time he got to Quantico he felt better. And he had also been put on I think anti-anxiety drugs. And so what the court had found was that – there was a period also I should probably mention because it really stood out is where he was, you know, basically ordered to stand naked at parade rest in the morning. The court ruled that one episode in particular while he was at Quantico was considered unlawful pretrial confinement because the brig kept him on suicide risk against the recommendations of his mental health care providers, and –
HARRY SHEARER: These were mental health care providers hired and paid for by the Marines, right? They weren’t his private –
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yes.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yes. So essentially they – the distinction was that they were always recommending that he not be on prevention of injury watch and that he be downgraded from maximum custody to medium, that he wasn’t a harm to himself. But the brig needed their permission in order to put him on suicide risk. So the brig had the right to keep him on prevention of injury at their discretion. This is according to the judge’s ruling. But the time that the brig essentially treated him as if he was on suicide risk by stripping him without their recommendation was actually a violation of his Article 13 rights.
HARRY SHEARER: Wasn’t there a period of time where guards were instructed to check on him and if he were asleep to wake him every five minutes?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s right. He went through that. And essentially every five minutes they would ask him if he was okay –
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
ALEXA O’BRIEN: – when he was on suicide risk. And they had a logbook specifically just for Manning. And it was so crazy and preposterous, like listening to the testimony, you know, that because they were forced to write this log they would write down everything, and then these items would be brought into court in a very sinister fashion. Like for example we had, you know, essentially commanders of the garrison at Marine Corps Base Quantico describing the fact that they heard that Manning was playing peek-a-boo in the mirror and that this was really very irregular behavior for a maximum custody prisoner (laughs), or that he was rave dancing. But Manning wasn’t allowed to exercise in this 6×8 cell, and so he said in his testimony that he tried to do things that weren’t, I guess, according to procedure exercise but in which he could actually move, because he was going a bit batty.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah, and there’s also the matter of atrophying of your muscles. In most cases that involve charges that would be relatively close to the ballpark of wanton publishing, wantonly publishing, one would see friend-of-the-court briefs by other media organizations or other media personnel than the person or persons that are under charge. Have we seen any of that, or is that possible in a military proceeding? Have there been any friend-of-the-court briefs filed by anybody in the media?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: There’s been a smattering of public commentary about this but there hasn’t been anything formally filed that we know of with the court itself regarding his treatment or the charges against him.
HARRY SHEARER: Now, you’ve been in court every day of these proceedings, is that correct?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Pretty much, yeah.
HARRY SHEARER: And how many days has that been so far?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Oh, God –
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
ALEXA O’BRIEN: More than 40 days of actually being in court or session, and then of course you have to also factor in cleaning up the notes or, you know, properly formatting them, correcting them, fact checking them, all that kind of stuff.
HARRY SHEARER: Do you have a legal background?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: No. (laughs) That’s the crazy thing about this trial, you know. I started off in the pretrial, like, what is going on? Like, especially with just all the military abbreviations. But, you know, I’ve had an education.
HARRY SHEARER: And is anybody paying you to do this?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: No. I’m self-funded. I mean, people donate, they make small donations, and people donate services to me. Like, I don’t have to pay for a hotel in the area. I stay locally. So my costs are low.
HARRY SHEARER: And is there a date yet set for the trial?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: There is. We go into an Article 39 on the 7th. It’s supposed to be closed, but I have a feeling they’re going to litigate stuff on the open record, so I’m heading there. And then we go back on the 21st –
HARRY SHEARER: These are of May?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Of May. Sorry. Yes. And then the trial starts in earnest, according to the court calendar, on June 3rd and is expected to go 12 weeks.
HARRY SHEARER: Now when you’re saying these dates, there doesn’t seem to me, from what I read and what you say, to be a really clear, necessarily clear explication of what one can expect in these proceedings. So you’re going there just on the expectation that something will be considered. We don’t know what issues are yet to be litigated in the pretrial situation, do we?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: According to the last court discussion – any time the government says not to show up, that’s when I show up.
HARRY SHEARER: (laughs)
ALEXA O’BRIEN: (laughs) When the government says they don’t plan any open sessions, that’s when I show up, because there’s going to be an open session and there’ll be details that’ll be important for my own understanding and analysis of the case. We know that they’re going to have a closed session on the 7th or 8th of May and it’s going to be essentially a dry run so that the court can kind of try to understand how to handle classified information. I just published a transcript a couple days ago with a list of 28 witnesses that the government is trying to have testify at least partially or in their entirety in a closed session away from the public. And of course, you know, this is not how we do things in the United States of America, at least not in theory.
HARRY SHEARER: Mmhmm.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: So the court has to go through sort of to see if there are alternatives to closing the court to protect this quote unquote classified information.
HARRY SHEARER: And we don’t know the nature of this classified information, obviously, right?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Well, that’s why I’m really glad that I published that list of 28 witnesses, because today Marcy Wheeler published a piece on one of these individuals, who is Ambassador Stephen Seche from the State Department, and based on her own expertise in the national security arena she expects that he’s going to come and be a sentencing witness probably, I mean this is speculation, and that he’s going to testify that Bradley Manning harmed – he will likely or could testify that Bradley Manning harmed U.S. national security by exposing not only the drone strikes in Yemen and U.S. bombing in Yemen – we were hiding that, or the government of Yemen was hiding that from the people, saying it was their bombs – but also the original, the sort of initial targetings of al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed without judicial process by the executive branch.
HARRY SHEARER: I seem to remember that – and correct me if I’m wrong – was it Robert Gates who said publicly, perhaps in congressional testimony, that as far as he knew there had been embarrassment caused to the United States by these leaks, but as far as he could determine, no harm had come to any specific individual, at least as of the time that he spoke? Was that Gates?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s right. It was Gates, and it was also Hillary Clinton, and it was also Admiral Mike Mullen. And the fact of the matter is that – and this is, you know, published in a January 2011 article by Reuters – the congressional aide, an anonymous source to Reuters, said that the State Department officials were playing up damage in order to both stir a prosecution of not only Manning but of also WikiLeaks. And if you look at the State Department letter by Harold Koh, their legal adviser who is an Obama proponent of drone warfare also and a former board member of Human Rights First, which I always find a bit strange and weird, but he wrote a letter to Julian Assange essentially right before the publication of the U.S. State Department cables, in response to a letter from Julian Assange to him saying, you know, “We’re willing to redact whatever you need us to redact.” And the State Department essentially said, like, you know, “You’re forbidden from publishing this and this is harmful to U.S. national security.” Well that letter and the language of that letter was used by Paypal and also Visa, MasterCard and the like to actually initiate their banking blockade of WikiLeaks.
HARRY SHEARER: Now in case listeners might find that two-way communication unusual, it should be said that that is the kind of communication that, let’s say, the New York Times will have with the State Department or with the Defense Department if somebody leaks something to them. Usually before they publish they will go and say, “Tell us what to redact, tell us what might affect national security, we’ll take it out.” Is that not correct?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s correct.
HARRY SHEARER: And the government usually cooperates with the New York Times in that request.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That is correct. That’s why the New York Examiner, and I followed suit after them, have FOIAed all the communications between the New York Times and the Department of State about this release.
HARRY SHEARER: Freedom of Information Act requested is FOIAed, right?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yes.
HARRY SHEARER: Yes. And you put these transcripts online at alexaobrien.com, is that right?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: That’s correct.
HARRY SHEARER: But you also tweet when you’re covering on a minute-by-minute basis, I’ve noted.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Yeah, and I try to cover the trial in a very accurate and very sort of – it’s really I do this for subject matter experts, so that’s why I tend to focus on like what case law, or what are the elements of the rulings, to try to empower other journalists who might want to cover the case from afar.
HARRY SHEARER: And the most severe penalty that awaits, potentially awaits Bradley Manning is a death sentence, is that correct, under the Espionage Act?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: The government says that it won’t execute him, but that’s really not their decision; they’re just basically recommending that they don’t execute him, and fundamentally the decision is up to the military judge. Bradley Manning faces multiple life sentences for the charges against him, and based on his recent plea to the nine lesser included and then the one Article 92, he already has an exposure of 20 years.
HARRY SHEARER: Finally, let’s talk a little bit about Bradley Manning the person. You made some observations I think in another interview that I found intriguing. What we had been hearing from I think mainstream media sources were mainly observations or rumors or something about his state of mind in Iraq and his sexual identity issues while he was in the Army in Iraq. You gave us – tell us about that, and then tell us what – you described him in court, I think the words that stood out to me were, “very obedient.” So, contrast those two views of Bradley Manning, if you could, for us.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Well, Bradley Manning is really young, first of all. When he leaked these, he was in his, you know, early 20s. He’s currently 25 years old. He’s also very, very bright and precocious, and he’s very methodical and very logical, and he’s incredibly earnest. He’s earnest in the way that really bright, passionate people can be, and so they can oftentimes be also a bit intense. And he was also at a stage in his life where he was sort of figuring out how to deal with adult world. He was never closeted, I mean, from what we know in public reports. I mean I’ve never spoken to Bradley Manning, so I want to apologize if I get any small detail wrong, but from what we know, from what’s already been published, I mean he was always very forthright even in his sexuality. There is evidence from the Article 32 that he wasn’t sure if he had certain gender identity issues with regards to, you know, this time period while he was in Iraq. And he didn’t have a lot of guidance.
I mean, one of the interesting things about the evidence that’s come out related to his sexuality, and I’m not an expert on this particular issue, but he did have a scholarly paper called “Flight Into Hyeprmasculinity,” and it was an article about the fact that there is a higher proportion of people with gender identity complexes within the military and that oftentimes they join the military because it’s a very hypermasculine environment, in the case if they’re male and they have a more feminine identity. So there’s that issue going on.
But you know fundamentally Bradley Manning is actually a very obedient and earnest young man, and if you see him in court he has the kind of personality that would even disarm and has disarmed this very aggressive and boisterous military prosecutor. During the Article 13 when Manning was on the stand for nine hours, by the end of his cross examination with the government, the government prosecutor was smiling at him. There isn’t much mendacity to Bradley Manning, and in many ways he answers questions in the way that you or I would answer questions if we were on the stand for these serious charges. I think he really, really, truly believes that he was doing the right thing and that he couldn’t handle – in a statement he talked about the fact that he didn’t want to work for the Iraqi security police because he knew that these people would be disappeared or would be tortured and he just couldn’t live with that.
HARRY SHEARER: I guess the question about him that lingers with me is, after following the story of his treatment, his pretrial confinement, especially the treatment at Quantico, the person you describe, I mean certainly within the broad parameters of what we consider normal, sounds utterly normal. He doesn’t sound like somebody who’s been tortured for nine months. It doesn’t sound like he behaves like somebody who’s been tortured for nine months.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: You know, Bradley Manning isn’t a maniac. He’s a very reasoned person. And even if you see how he’s instructed his lawyer to handle himself with the press, he said to his lawyer that he only wanted text-based documents published, that he didn’t want to do any kind of exposés. This is a person who’s very scientific in his thinking. I think the fact that he leaked source documents is a thread throughout that, that he wanted the public to really be informed, that he believed in the idea of self-governance and the requirement of public information and knowledge as a requirement for that. This is not somebody who is a showboat, a gloryboat, a media whore, so to speak, so I think he can – even in his plea, he said, “I admit guilt, that these actions are service discrediting and prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the U.S. armed services, and I can see how these leaks harmed U.S. reputation as to how it could handle information, and for that I, you know, I take full responsibility.”
HARRY SHEARER: And finally, I think, just to wrap this up, Alexa, in all of the testimony and all of the evidence that you know of – obviously much evidence that’s been submitted – much evidence won’t be submitted until the trial itself, but much has been submitted in secret – is there any evidence that Bradley Manning has ever been in communication with any representative or associate of Al Qaeda or the Taliban?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Absolutely not.
HARRY SHEARER: Alexa O’Brien, at alexaobrien.com and on Twitter – what’s your Twitter handle?
ALEXA O’BRIEN: @carwinb. (laughs)
HARRY SHEARER: You want to explain that? (laughs)
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Just c-a-r-w-i-n-b. I used to go by a screen name named Carwin Biloquist and I just abbreviated it.
HARRY SHEARER: Okay then. On Twitter. For the best and most comprehensive coverage of what’s the legal proceedings surrounding Private Bradley Manning. Thank you so much for being with us today.
ALEXA O’BRIEN: Thank you for having me.
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HARRY SHEARER: That’s going to conclude this week’s edition of Le Show. The program returns next week at this same time over these same stations except in Los Angeles, over NPR Worldwide throughout Europe, on the USEN 440 cable system in Japan, around the world through the facilities of the American Forces Network, up and down the East Coast of North America via the shortwave giant WBCQ The Planet 7.490 MHz shortwave, on the Mighty 104 in Berlin, around the world via the Internet at two different locations live and archived whenever you want it, harryshearer.com and through kcrw.com/news/news-24 – that’s easy to remember, isn’t it? Now in stereo too. Available as a free podcast at kcrw.com as well as at iTunes and Sideshow Network, and available for your smartphone through stitcher.com. And it would be just like somebody else paying attention to that trial if you’d agree to join with me then. Would you? All righty. Thank you very much, uh huh.
A tip of the Le Show chapeau to the San Diego, Pittsburgh, Chicago in exile, and Hawaii desks. Thanks as always to Pam Halstead, and thanks to Stephen Dixon at POP Sound in Santa Monica and Paul Ruest at Argot Studios in New York for engineering help with today’s broadcast.
This program’s website is harryshearer.com. You can send e-mail there or find out what music is played on the broadcast. And on Twitter, I’m @theharryshearer. Aren’t you?
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