President Barack Obama has unwittingly waded into a military legal tangle by declaring that WikiLeaks suspect Pfc. Bradley Manning "broke the law." Manning's supporters claim the president's statement amounts to "unlawful command influence" and has jeopardized Manning's chance for a fair trial.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits "Command Influence," in which a superior officer up the chain of command says or does something that could influence any decisions by a military judge or jury in a criminal case. As commander in chief, there's no one higher up that chain than the president.
The tangle started last week after a political fundraiser in San Francisco. Logan Price, a supporter of Manning, got close enough to the president to shake his hand and then plead Manning's case. In an exchange that was caught on a cell phone video, Price claimed that Manning, charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, is a whistle-blower not a criminal. Price asked, "Why is he being prosecuted?"
Obama responded that what Manning allegedly did was "irresponsible, risked the lives of service members and did a lot of damage." But when Price persisted Obama shot back, "He broke the law."
A military legal expert says the president himself crossed a legal line with that statement.
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit group that promotes the fair administration of justice in the military system, told NBC News that the president's remark "is unlawful command influence," which includes an assumption of guilt.
"The president shouldn't have said it. He should have been more circumspect," Fidell said.
The White House jumped to the president's defense by arguing the facts. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor claimed the president was speaking only generally about the unlawful release of classified material. Vietor insisted Obama "was not expressing a view as to the guilt or innocence of PFC Manning specifically."
Fidell, however, has another possible explanation. Despite the president's Harvard Law degree, Fidell believes it's quite possible Obama was totally unaware of the uniform code's prohibition against "command influence," and in the spontaneous exchange with Price, simply "let down his guard."
But in the end, Fidell predicts the issue should not adversely affect the prosecution's case against Manning. While a defense lawyer could claim the president's statement unlawfully prejudices the case against his client, potential jurors could be screened to ensure they are not aware of the remark.
Manning faces some two dozen charges in connection with the alleged unlawful downloading of thousands of classified documents, many of which were publicly released by WikiLeaks. The most serious charge, aiding the enemy, carries the death sentence. No trial date has been set.
Manning was transferred last week to the Army's prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after spending the past nine months at a Marine brig in Quantico, Va. His transfer came amid claims from his lawyer and others that his confinement at Quantico was unduly harsh and amounted to punishment before trial.