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WikiLeaks: The Rhode Island Connection

Pfc. Manning's lawyer takes a local audience inside the courtroom
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 2, 2013


Whistleblowing. Treason. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Julian Assange and the definition of the word “journalist.” The politics of gender dysphoria. The Obama administration’s unprecedented pursuit and prosecution of leakers. A disturbing video, shot from an Apache helicopter in Iraq in 2007, showing two Reuters journalists who are mistaken for insurgents and gunned down from above by American troops because their cameras looked like weapons.

The federal prosecution of Private First Bradley Manning — who has publicly announced her intention to live as a woman named Chelsea Manning since being convicted and sentence to 35 years in prison this summer for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents — touches all of those subjects and more, with even a place at the table for Lady Gaga, whose song “Telephone” Manning listened and lip synced to, “while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history,” by her own description.

But a Rhode Island connection? Actually, there’s one of those, too.

Manning’s lead defense attorney, Lieutenant Colonel David E. Coombs, is married to an associate professor of law at Roger Williams University named, Tanya Monestier, and he practices law out of an office in Providence. And when the 44-year-old, Boise, Idaho, native sat down on September 25 in a classroom at RWU’s Bristol campus for his lengthiest public comments about the case to date, he began by reminding the audience that he once taught as an adjunct at RWU. “Although this is not my law school, I feel like it is,” he said.

Coombs was interviewed by RWU law professor Emily Sack, who turned the questioning over to guests in the packed auditorium during the second half of the hour. Before kicking off the discussion, she offered a handful of stats from the case: how Manning was charged with leaking more than 250,000 diplomatic cables and 400,000 classified Army reports from the Iraq war — 22 specified offenses, in total.

She also added a brief word on pronouns. “There may be times when we’re referring to the case and the trial in the past, where we will, by necessity, be referring to ‘Bradley’ or ‘he,’ ” she said. “And my understanding is that Manning understands that and is comfortable with that.”

“That’s correct,” Coombs said.

The following excerpts from Coombs’s remarks have been edited and condensed.

ON THE GOVERNMENT’S AIDING THE ENEMY CHARGE: Pfc. Manning was charged with aiding the enemy for giving information to a journalist — the WikiLeaks organization — that, ultimately, through their cooperation, gave it to The New York Times, [the British newspaper] The Guardian, [the German weekly magazine] Der Spiegel. And basically it was released at that point.

The mens rea issue was whether or not you knowingly give information to an enemy, and here they charged Pfc. Manning with doing that through indirect means. The indirect means was giving it to the media and then the enemy gets access to this because the media publishes it. The government never said that Pfc. Manning’s intent was to get information to the enemy, just that he knowingly gave it to WikiLeaks and through the indirect means of giving it to the enemy — of publication — that’s how the enemy found out about it.

And because that offense carries the death penalty, our position was, “You gotta have something more than just knowledge that the enemy may somehow gain access to this information if it’s published.” Because clearly, then, if you said anything and a reporter publishes it, and somehow that aids the enemy, you could be charged with a death penalty offense. And that just simply can’t be the case.

[But], I don’t know if the government really had a theory, to tell you the truth. I think their theory was that this was information that embarrassed the United States government, we don’t like it, and “’Aiding the enemy’ sounds like a good offense, so we’re gonna go with that.”

ON WHAT MANNING’S ONLINE CHAT RECORDS REVEALED: Usually in a criminal case, if your client has computer forensics, that’s not a good thing for you. Usually it shows that they’ve done something bad. But the forensics in this case really helped us, because it uncovered the Adrian Lamo chats. [Editor’s note: Lamo was a hacker to whom Manning confided in 2010. He eventually turned Manning in to military authorities.] It uncovered chats with Zachary Antolak, who is now going by the name Lauren McNamara. And in both of those chats, it showed a very consistent position of Pfc. Manning, of being a humanist, someone who cares about human life, debating. . . how he could best serve his command to ensure that every soldier, every Marine, every contractor, even local nationals got home safely — really kind of taking on a lot of pressure on his shoulders, thinking that his job was one in which, “If I do it successfully, I could save lives.”

With the Adrian Lamo chats, you see a person who now sees on a daily basis, what are called “SIGACTS” — Significant Activity Reports. And these SIGACTS show a person, oftentimes several people, being killed at various points. And when you look at them and you just read the SIGACTS cold, you don’t really get the feeling of loss of human life. It’s only when you start to realize that every one of these people that is being killed is a real person and it’s real human life lost, that it starts to drive home for you you’re reading. . . peoples’ obituaries in these SIGACTS. And for Manning. . . it’s a long story, but I’ll brief it; I’ll give you a Cliff’s Notes version.

It involved an IED that exploded and initially we thought one of our convoys was hit. And it was a family of five that was passing one of our convoys, and unfortunately for them, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when the IED exploded and went off, it went through their car. So their car was kind of the buffer between the convoy and the IED. And we never found out how many people died in that, but some children died in it. And for him, that was kind of the first time it kinda drove home for him that this is not make-believe. This is reality. This is real people.

And so you see in the Lamo chats, where he is saying, “You know what? If the American people only saw this stuff, if they only knew what the soldiers were being asked to do on a daily basis and how much life is being lost,” he really felt that that would spark reforms, spark debates, cause people to reevaluate how we do counter-insurgency, the effectiveness of. . . kinda like killing everybody in a particular area and basically hoping that we got the right people. [He was] concerned about, when we have a lot of civilian loss of life, are we creating more enemies. . . because we’ve killed innocent people?

ON THE SCOPE OF MANNING’S LEAKS: Pfc. Manning, even though [he] did release quite a bit of information, had access to literally, I would say, probably tens of millions of documents. So when you look at somebody who has access to something probably in the neighborhood of 100 million, say, documents and some of it is, no kidding, [material that] I don’t care who you are, you look at this and say, “Yeah, this is going to be harmful.” When, then, you release only 700,000 documents and you see the common thread between each block of information, you see it was a very selective release. It wasn’t a release that was indiscriminate.

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