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Kevin Gosztola speaks to The Real News in an exclusive interview responding to Wikileaks Whistleblower Chelsea Manning being sentenced to 35 years in prison

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OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: On Wednesday, August 21, 25-year-old Private Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act.

The Real News spoke to Kevin Gosztola, blogger from Firedoglake.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA, BLOGGER, FIREDOGLAKE: I had been operating under the presumption that he might be sentenced to 25 years. Certainly I decided that it was entirely likely that he would get some kind of a harsh sentence because we had this aiding the enemy charge go on throughout the entire court-martial, with the military judge entertaining the prosecutors’ novel theory and dangerous theory behind this offense. So because of that I was–and because of the fact that he was convicted of 20 offenses, I certainly expected that there would be a harsh sentence. But I predicted that it would be, like, 25 years. I didn’t really think that the judge would go for 35 years as she did.

So my initial reaction was just to have further affirmation for some of the conclusions I had already drawn about the military justice process, such as the fact that it appears with this case, if you look at this case in comparison to other cases where you’ve had soldiers suspected of committing war crimes, torturing people, or killing innocent civilians, those individuals haven’t gotten as much time as Bradley Manning is getting. And he’s going to be serving much, much more time than they did.

TEXT ON SCREEN: How would you evaluate how the military tried private Manning?

GOSZTOLA: The trial itself lacked the perception of fairness. I very much agree with Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, who said in comments at a press conference that he did not believe the military had given Bradley Manning a trial that appeared to be fair. Whether it was fair or not, he didn’t think that mattered, because many of us, the press, the public, could see aspects of it that needed to be improved.

So one key example I’ll give you is that the sentencing phase of the trial, around a third of the government’s sentencing case was presented in a closed session, and it was on the most critical aspects of Manning’s alleged harm or damage to the United States. We can presume that whatever the judge based her ultimate verdict, her ultimate sentencing verdict on, she was going off some of this actual harm or alleged damage that was presented by prosecutors.

But the prosecutors in this case, the government, and even the agencies like the State Department and some of the others inside the military, did not do the decent thing and give Manning a trial that would be open and fair by agreeing to declassify not all examples, but not even few–not even a few examples were declassified, so that right now, when I did this interview, I could have a conversation, and someone could ask me, Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years, he was the reason why a human rights activist was assassinated by this group; don’t you think it’s reasonable that he’s getting 35 years in prison? Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what the government had against Bradley Manning. And it’s unfair to him, in my opinion, that he’s going to serve a sentence of up to 35 years in military prison and we don’t really know what the government thinks they have.

And, in fact, the fact that they didn’t declassify the material, I’m willing to suggest–and David Coombs sort of confirms it by saying that in his closed sessions when he was there as a lawyer, he didn’t understand why they were in a closed session, because the material was not that sensitive. And so when I hear that, I think that the closed session was cover for the fact that they have nothing to back up their hyperbolic claims.

Numerous U.S. government officials were willing to go on the record when Manning’s information first was published by WikiLeaks and say whatever about who could be killed, what risk would happen to national security, what would be posed by the risks to national security, what could happen in terms of diplomacy. And now, in a trial, they weren’t willing to back up those claims with actual proof and evidence in an open court.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Some legal experts have called Manning’s 35-year sentence ‘unprecedented’. What’s your response?

GOSZTOLA: The severity of Bradley Manning’s sentence is because the U.S. government right now is in an information war. And this is part of showing that they will do whatever at all costs in order to control the information.

Sitting through this court-martial for the past 21 months, it became abundantly clear that the U.S. government has a different view of government information than–well, obviously they have a different view than Bradley Manning, but they have a different view than most Americans, most American citizens, because they view the information that is classified and that should be available to the public eventually through a declassification process, through a Freedom of Information Act process, or through just the release by public officials, they view that information as property. They see it as being something that the government owns. And it can do with that property what you and I would do with our homes or what we would do with any possessions that we had of our own.

And that’s not how information should be viewed. Clearly, the information is something that we as taxpayers, as citizens of this country, all have a right to read at some point, depending on the sensitivity. And Bradley Manning looked at the information inside of the intelligence facility where he was working in Baghdad and Iraq, and he made a decision that there were some specific sets of information that needed to be public right now so people could see incidence of a war crime, so people could see torture, so people could see how there was denial of due process, how diplomats were acting behind closed doors, so they could see the true nature, as he put it, of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century in Iraq or Afghanistan through those Iraq and Afghanistan war logs that WikiLeaks published, so they could see the Guantanamo files and who it exactly was that we were rounding up and putting in this prison that was offshore in order to deny people human rights.

And so the severity is to send a message to any other soldiers that are considering doing what Bradley Manning did, to send a message to whistleblowers in general in all parts of the U.S. government, because we also see this message being sent to people who have come close to Edward Snowden.

And Edward Snowden, in fact, he has learned, wisely, from Bradley Manning to not be in the United States, to not try to get a fair trial here, because he will not get one. And so he sought asylum in another country and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. And I believe that he looks at Bradley Manning’s case today and feels that he made the right decision to not remain in the United States.

TEXT ON SCREEN: What are your thoughts on the defense’s response? It was their first public statement since 2010.

GOSZTOLA: The revelations for me in hearing Manning’s lawyer speak is of course he’s going to be more candid now because there isn’t a trial that he has to complete. Hearing what he had to say about the problem of overclassification, hearing what he said about the importance of whistleblowers being able to come forward to journalists, the importance of there being outlets that people in government can go to so that they can get information out that they believe the public has a right to view, that was very refreshing.

I think when we look back on this trial and we consider the defense team that he had, there are aspects of the trial that were very conventional and tactical, but there were also various points throughout the court-martial where the defense team was willing to be bold and honest about what Bradley Manning did at possible risk to the case, because the judge wasn’t going to be receptive to this idea that Manning was a whistleblower, the judge wasn’t going to be receptive to this idea that Manning could select documents and decide whether those documents would cause harm or damage. She wasn’t going to listen to arguments about his intent. In fact, she prevented the defense from putting on a case, because the government filed a motion and asked her to rule against the defense and prevent them from talking about damage, harm, Manning’s good faith as a soldier. That really impeded the defense’s case.

So the press conference, hearing from the defense, what came through is that his defense team recognizes that they’re part of a challenge against the entire national security apparatus of the United States, and that not only, as they go forward, do they need to push for Bradley Manning to be pardoned and released from prison, but his defense team also has to push for greater transparency in the military justice system, has to push for cameras in the courtroom, has to challenge the way in which these cases unfold, and also has to be mindful of how Bradley Manning’s case will have an effect on future whistleblowers, because we very much need people like Bradley Manning who will come forward and share what they’re seeing on the inside, especially when they know that abuses of power are happening.

And Bradley Manning being sentenced to prison for 35 years is something that is intended to deter those whistleblowers from coming forward.

I just want to say something quickly about Bradley Manning’s statement. David Coombs read a statement from Bradley Manning that the Bradley Manning support network actually did not know was going to be read at the press conference. And it was a very profound statement. And what came through to me is this is what Bradley Manning would have liked to have said in the courtroom at Fort Meade, but Bradley Manning could not say this, because had he actually said it, it would have demonstrated to the judge that he had no remorse for his actions. It would have demonstrated that he found aspects of his act to be acceptable. And that’s how she would have interpreted it.

I’m not suggesting that Bradley Manning isn’t willing to admit that he violated the law and committed offenses and should have done this differently. He accepted responsibility that what he had done was a violation of military codes of justice.

But in this statement what really came through is that Bradley Manning is a very reflective individual, and he very much understands the history of the United States. He’s read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He recognizes the times, the chapters in American history where we’ve had our darkest moments. And he saw when he was in Iraq that the United States was in a very dark moment and that part of what he could do to contribute as a patriot to his country would be to act upon the information he was seeing inside of the intelligence facility at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Baghdad, Iraq. And what he could do is the act that he was capable of doing, which was to disclose this information to WikiLeaks, to pass it on to an organization that he knew was going to publish that information, and then you and I would be able have conversations.

And one of the final thoughts I have to share is that Bradley Manning has helped me to become the journalist that I am today. And without Bradley Manning taking that step, I wouldn’t have spent months covering U.S. diplomatic cables intensively, reporting on the contents. I wouldn’t have looked at war logs. I wouldn’t have talked about the different military incidents that were revealed there and what they meant for this country. I wouldn’t have gotten into the Guantanamo files and learned and had a greater understanding of who these people were that the U.S. government was imprisoning. And I think that we’re better off because we have this information.

And the fact that the U.S. government can’t present any real, actual damage, any long-term effects cannot be shown by the military prosecutors, especially in open court, that suggests to me that there’s a level of injustice to the fact that Bradley Manning is going to Fort Leavenworth at some point this week and will be imprisoned for up to 35 years.

TEXT ON SCREEN: How would you evaluate the fairness of this trial?

GOSZTOLA: The fairness of this trial is something that you have to consider in different ways.

So there’s the fairness of could Bradley Manning be found guilty or not guilty of what he did. And obviously he accepted responsibility and he pled, so he was going to be found guilty.

But then what about the sentence? What kind of a sentence was Bradley Manning going to get, and was it fair from the beginning? Was there a likelihood that he wasn’t going to get a harsh sentence? And I don’t think that there ever was a likelihood that he was going to get anything less than the 35-year sentence that the judge handed down. And that’s because of the offenses that he was charged with, that’s because of how she accepted that when he was imprisoned, he was charged with serious offenses, so the Marine Corps had a right to treat him in many of the ways that they did while he was imprisoned at Quantico.

And then they had a right to take a very long time to get to trial. And we heard this during the argument over the defense’s motion arguing that his speedy trial rights had been violated. And the defense said he should have gotten a trial by now. We were well into hundreds and hundreds of days of pretrial confinement. And the judge said, well, his crime involves a voluminous amount of information, so that is why the prosecutors are–it’s okay for them to have taken this long to get to trial.

And then we have the trial. And after we concluded a pretrial process where the military refused to be transparent and give the press documents so that we could report on what was–the arguments were of the government, you know, when we got to trial, we didn’t know some of how the government was arguing its case against Bradley Manning, because their motions were secret. The defense was voluntarily publishing motions so that the press could report, but we didn’t really know all the details about how the government was prosecuting Bradley Manning.

I was a plaintiff in a Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit with others, including Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian now, Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and others, who were pressing for all the court-martial records to be released. And through our actions, we got a level of transparency in the trial that went toward making Manning’s trial more fair. We had the Freedom of the Press Foundation raise money and fund a stenographer so that there was a transcript of the trial every single day, so that people around the world who couldn’t make it to Fort Meade could follow what was happening in this court-martial. And that is very significant, and it was very helpful to ensuring Bradley Manning’s due process rights. It was something the military was not willing to do. They were not willing to provide a public transcript.

And I emphasize these points because I think they are crucial. And as minor as they might seem to people who aren’t covering this closely or following this closely, having these transcripts gives Manning’s trial the visibility, gave Manning’s trial the visibility made it possible for us to give aspects of what was going on proper attention.

And in the trial itself, there were multiple times where it could be seen that the prosecutors were pushing and pushing against the defense to an extent that the judge maybe should not have allowed.

And then, finally, when we get to sentencing, the big thing there was that so much of the case was in closed sessions, and when you got to the sentence, we can’t have an open conversation about what it is exactly the government thinks they have on Bradley Manning. And so when you get right down to it, because they couldn’t do the decent thing and give the material, give actual examples of Manning’s alleged harm or damage, you have to accept that his sentence of 35 years is this very severe message to anyone like Bradley Manning who has a conscience that this is what will happen to you if you take independent action and you decide to go to a media organization.

And something that should be talked about as a sidebar to this trial but hasn’t because it didn’t factor into this case is what are the proper channels that a military whistleblower can go through inside of the U.S. army. I don’t actually know. I don’t know and I don’t know if Bradley Manning knew what channels he had to go through. But I know that there are various whistleblowers in recent history in the United States who have tried to go through proper channels who have been shut down, who have been retaliated against, and who have been told that they should either shut up or they’re going to be fired and forced out of their positions in government.

We can run through quickly what could have happened if Bradley Manning had taken the “Collateral Murder” video, or any of the war logs that he saw people being tortured, or any of the U.S. State embassy cables which showed misconduct by U.S. diplomats, and we can say, if he had gone to his superior officer and showed this to them and said he thought that this needed to be public material, that would have been a red flag immediately. And he had a security clearance. I’m going to suggest that based on what I’ve heard in the court-martial, the military would have begun a procedure to file what is called derogatory information. And this process, this procedure would have eventually meant that Bradley Manning could have his clearance revoked, and he would no longer be able to work as an intelligence analyst at the base where he was stationed in Baghdad, and so we would not have the WikiLeaks publications of information. If Manning had actually gone through proper channels, today you and I would not have the benefit of all of the 700,000 different pieces of information which are out there in the public domain because of what Bradley Manning did.

And, you know, I feel to his credit that he responded appropriately to his conscience and decided that there was something that had to be done, because people within his chain of command weren’t paying attention, weren’t responding properly to actual instances of torture and abuse. They weren’t taking the killings of civilians seriously and responding to them in a just matter. And so there needed to be some kind of corrective action. And especially with the severe problem of overclassification of information, which Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, gave attention today in the conference, in the press conference, that is another aspect that I think exonerates Manning to an extent, because what he’s doing is nowhere near the level of corrective action that is necessary, but it begins to sort of bring the country back into balance.

There are millions of documents classified each year, so releasing 700,000 documents doesn’t actually fix the balance. But, as you can consider, Manning releasing information without authorization can be considered a counter to the U.S. government overclassifying information improperly. And not having a process to fix that, even when most people in government will admit that there is too much classification of information, and sometimes to an extent where they’re classifying material that they don’t even know why it is classified and they don’t remember if it is classified, is when they go to do interviews, they leak national security secrets that later they find out they probably shouldn’t have shared with journalists.


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Kevin Gosztola is the managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast Unauthorized Disclosure.