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Bradley Manning might take responsibility for WikiLeaks role through plea deal

Bradley Manning might take responsibility for WikiLeaks role through plea deal
Just shy of day 900 behind bars, accused whistleblower Pfc. Bradley Manning says he may accept responsibility for giving sensitive items to Wikileaks should the government decide to charge him with lesser offenses during his upcoming court-martial.

Manning, a 24-year-old Army private first class, has been detained under military custody since May 26, 2010 but has yet to be tried. The US government says the soldier supplied Julian Assange’s Wikileaks site with hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other materials he is alleged to have had access to while deployed, and if convicted for as much he could be sentenced to life in prison. During pretrial motion hearings in Ft. Meade, Maryland early Wednesday, Manning’s legal counsel told the judge that their client has submitted a plea notice in the case that could greatly influence how next year’s scheduled court-martial plays out.

Firedoglake reported mid-day Wednesday from Ft. Meade that civilian defense attorney David Coombs told the court Manning “would accept general responsibility for providing all charged information to WikiLeaks,” but that the soldier was not at this time pleading guilty to any charges. With the filing of the plea notice, however, Manning is now likely to admit to either having a role in relaying those materials to Wikileaks or else otherwise agree that the US government has sufficient enough evidence to prove his alleged guilt.

Update: Wednesday evening, Mr. Coombs clarified the statement by offering more details on PFC Manning's proposed arrangement:

"PFC Manning has offered to plead guilty to various offenses through a process known as "pleading by exceptions and substitutions."  To clarify, PFC Manning is not pleading guilty to the specifications as charged by the Government. Rather, PFC Manning is attempting to accept responsibility for offenses that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses. The Court will consider whether this is a permissible plea."

"PFC Manning is not submitting a plea as part of an agreement or deal with the Government. Further, the Government does not need to agree to PFC Manning's plea; the Court simply has to determine that the plea is legally permissible. If the Court allows PFC Manning to plead guilty by exceptions and substitutions, the Government may still elect to prove up the charged offenses. Pleading by exceptions and substitutions, in other words, does not change the offenses with which PFC Manning has been charged and for which he is scheduled to stand trial."

Mr. Coombs also acknowledged on Wednseday that PFC Manning has elected to be tried by a military judge alone, and not a jury.

Alexa O’Brien, an activist and journalist present at Ft. Meade this week, writes that Manning has entered forms with the court and “is pleading to ‘certain’ lesser included offenses,” or LIOs, though he is not admitting any guilt at the moment. During an earlier pretrial hearing, Judge Denise Lind only considered the LIO of clause 3 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 134, which includes charges involving “noncapital crimes or offenses which violate federal law.” Because Judge Lind has not weighed in on what sentencing Manning could face if convicted on other charges dealing with other clauses of the code, O’Brien says the court now needs to decide how to proceed. She expects that to occur during a week of hearings in late November that will precede a likely February 2013 military trial.

“In Fed [and] Military Court, none of this means Manning has plead guilty yet,” O’Brien tweeted from Ft. Meade. She writes that he has, however, agreed to pled to certain LIOs by “exceptions and substitutions” to the original charges. According to Firedoglake, pleading to lesser-included offenses could free Manning up from having to plea to the more serious crimes of violating the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), potentially allowing him to escape admitting guilt in regards to the charges of “aiding the enemy” and exceeding authorized access of a computer system.

“Bradley Manning did not plead guilty to anything,” FDL’s Kevin Gosztola wrote from outside the court. “This is maneuvering to ensure best possible outcome for him in court martial”

“This is Manning agreeing to meet [the government] at a lower level. So, if they abandoned more severe charges, he'd accept responsibility,” Gosztola adds. The paperwork does not, however, constitute an actual plea bargain with the government, therefore the ball is in Judge Lind’s court in terms of how to continue.

“The next step is the judge accepts or rejects the plea. If accepted, the government has to decide how it would like to handle the judge’s decision,” Gosztola writes. “If the plea is accepted, is it cuts back on the physical evidence and the witnesses that the government may need to call to make a case. It also cuts back on the arguments that would need to be made.”

Manning is one of seven persons charged under the antiquated, World War One-era Espionage Act by US President Barack Obama, who has held more Americans accountable for that law than any other commander-in-chief before him. Just last month, accused CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou pleaded down to avoid sentencing under the Espionage Act for his role in releasing information about the agency’s torture methods used on suspected terrorists in exchange for admitting guilt in a lesser crime; he was sentenced to less than 3 years in prison, as opposed to 45. 

Hours after US President Barack Obama was re-elected on Tuesday, Julian Assange issued a statement warning,

“Four more years in the same direction cannot be tolerated.”

“Obama promised a more open government,” Assange wrote. “But instead his administration has built a state within a state, placing nearly five million Americans under the national security clearance system, replete with secret laws, secret budgets, secret bailouts, secret killings, secret mass spying, and secret detention without charge.”

Jacob Appelbaum, a computer researcher involved with the Tor Project and an one-time representative of Mr. Assange, tweeted late Tuesday, “I admit, I'm glad that Obama won; I just hope that now he will stop prosecuting #manning and will stop harassing #wikileaks supporters.”

On Monday, two days before Manning's most recent court-date, the FBI unsealed an affadavit showing that the government has just charged a linguist for the Navy in Bahrain,James Hitselberger, under the Espionage Act for allegedly copying intelligence files leaked to Stanford University.