FORT MEADE, Md. — Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of the biggest leak of classified material in American history, is not a traitor but a well-intentioned young man who was “trying to ply his knowledge to hopefully save lives,” his lawyer argued Friday.
In a closing argument at Manning’s court-martial, the lawyer, David Coombs, said that Manning “felt a duty to everyone” and was following the principles on which the country was founded.
The judge in the case, Army Col. Denise Lind, will decide whether Manning is guilty. She said she would begin deliberations Friday night and would provide a day's notice before delivering the verdict.
Coombs, who quoted from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal in his argument, ended with a series of questions:
“Is PFC Manning someone who has no loyalty to this country or the flag, and wanted to systematically harvest and download as much info as possible for his true employer Wikileaks? Is that what the evidence shows?” he asked.
“Or,” he continued, “is he a young, naïve but good-intentioned soldier who had human life and his humanist beliefs center to his decision, whose sole focus was: Maybe I just can make a difference, maybe make a change.”
Manning, 25, has said that he sent the information, which included diplomatic cables and battlefield reports, to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks because he was disillusioned by a U.S. foreign policy bent on “killing and capturing people.”
Several members of the public in the gallery applauded when Coombs finished, drawing a rebuke from the judge: “This is a court of law. I ask that you please keep your reaction muted.”
In a one-hour prosecution rebuttal that followed the defense's closing argument, Maj. Ashden Fein pushed back on the defense assertion that Manning was a naïve, good-intentioned young man, saying instead that Manning admitted in an online chat that he had been "penetrating" the military computer system for more than a year.
"He knew exactly what he was doing," Fein said, adding that Manning's actions represented "general evil intent" and were "not well-intentioned."
Fein said that Manning sought out "the type of information the enemy seeks, they want worldwide," and that because of Manning's actions, "that was given to them in searchable format." Manning identified weakness and then exploited them, Fein said, adding that he knew the information would be distributed worldwide.
On the idea that Manning was a whistleblower, Fein said that Manning did not read hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and then take any concerns up the chain of command. "He found something he knew would get published online because it was significant enough," Fein said, adding that in online chats Manning called himself a "hacktivist."
Manning turned his back on his country and soldiers, Fein said, "he knew the scope of his actions" and "he cared about no one but himself."
When he was finished, Judge Lind announced that she will go "straight into deliberations this evening." She said that once she is ready to announce her verdict, she will alert the attorneys and then make her announcement the following day.
On Thursday, a military prosecutor invoked Osama bin Laden in a closing argument that portrayed Manning as a man who aided the enemy when he provided more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning pleaded guilty to 10 charges that carry up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors pushed ahead with more serious counts, including larceny, aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act. Those charges could land Manning in jail for life.
Manning has been jailed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., since April 2011 and was at the military prison in Quantico, Va., for nine months before that.
Coombs said in his closing argument that prosecutors’ case was a “fictional story that they have drafted in their mind,” and that it was “an inconvenient truth” for the government that Manning wanted to save lives.
As for why Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents onto CDs, Coombs said that there were really no clear rules in the secure area where Manning worked in Iraq.
Also Friday, the judge banned a sketch artist, Clark Stoeckley, from the rest of the trial, citing inappropriate behavior. In a statement, the military said that a member of the media had been barred for posting threatening messages regarding some participants in the court-martial.
Stoeckley, a supporter of Manning who had media credentials to cover the court-martial, said on his Twitter feed: “Thank you for your concern. I’m fine.”