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Michael Ratner: Army is trying to pressure Manning into implicating Julian Assange so that he too can be charged and extradited to US

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from New York City is Michael Ratner. Michael is the president—I should say president emeritus of Center for Constitutional Rights; also a regular contributor and on-the-board member of The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So you represent Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and you were just at the arraignment of Bradley Manning. What happened at the arraignment? And what’s going on with that process?

RATNER: Well, I’m sure, as most of your listeners—well, viewers know, Bradley Manning is accused of being the source for much of the material that WikiLeaks put out with regard to the “Collateral Murder” video, the video about murders that took place in Iraq from a helicopter; hundreds of thousands of war documents about Afghanistan, as well as Iraq; as well as the so-called quarter million diplomatic cables. And he’s accused of doing that as a 22-year-old in the military. He’s now 24. He was treated very, very harshly, actually under torture conditions for a long time. And now he’s being referred to a court-martial, which is the military trial. He’s been given 22 charges, including a most serious charge, which is called aiding the enemy, which carries a death penalty. But at this point, they’ve only—they’re saying, the government’s saying, we’re not going to charge him with death penalty; we’re going to, you know, try and get a conviction for life.

So the arraignment is the process in which Manning appears before the judge and is asked to plead guilty or not guilty or defer his plea. And I went down to the hearing. It was a short hearing, about an hour, at Fort Meade, which is, of course, somewhat near where you’re broadcasting from these days, Paul, somewhat near Baltimore, an hour or so outside—maybe 40 minutes—at Fort Meade. It’s a huge, sprawling military fort. Very hard to get access to it. The car I drove in was inspected. You had to have insurance for the car, all kinds of other things. You then have to get in line.

You can’t bring any materials into the courtroom at all, other than a pencil and paper. I couldn’t do any Blackberry Twitters or anything else. And I’m in this very antiseptic looking courtroom. It’s hard to describe how antiseptic. It has cheap industrial carpeting, celotex ceilings with the little holes in them, and it only holds about 20 people. There are about ten of us spectators, ten people from press. And then Bradley Manning, a very short 5’2″, thin, slight soldier in a green uniform, walks in with his civilian lawyer—who was formerly a military lawyer—walks in, sits at the table. And you just had this amazing feeling in this antiseptic courtroom.

And here’s this man, accused of really revealing massive war crimes, alleged war crimes by the United States, I mean, sitting in this place in Fort Meade. And I had this feeling when I’m sitting here: the real people who should be sitting there are all the victims of what the U.S. has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, of course, that’s not who was there. Who’s there are the prosecutors with more brass on their chest that you can’t even stand up. And of course he’s accused, as I said, of these very serious crimes.

So the judge is a new judge that’s been appointed, and Bradley Manning was asked to plead. His answers were always—the only thing he said in court was, yes, Your Honor, or no, Your Honor. His lawyer spoke for him when it came time to plead, and he said he’s deferring the plea. And they set a date for the next hearing, which is going to be in March.

The trial date: they’re asking for a date in August—at least, the military’s asking for a date in August. And that means by the time he’s tried—and I don’t think it’s going to be tried in August—Bradley Manning will have been in pretrial confinement for 800 days. And, of course, while in that confinement, he was subject to what many of us believe was torture, stripped completely, put into solitary confinement a period of nine months, until there was incredible international outcry and he was finally moved to general population at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in the United States.

He also is being, as I said, heavily charged—22 counts. And at the last hearing, his lawyer, a man named David Coombs, said he was being so heavily charged and treated so badly because to the extent the government thinks he might know something about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, because he was the alleged source for WikiLeaks, they’re trying to get him to speak out, and to not just confess, but to really implicate Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

JAY: Because the point here is if it’s a leak, then Manning’s responsible, and he somehow just handed it over; but if Julian somehow assisted, advised, or was involved in the original gathering of the material, then they could charge Julian. That’s what’s at stake here?

RATNER: You know, it’s a very important point you’re making. That’s exactly what’s at stake. I mean, I wouldn’t characterize it the way you did, but it’s roughly that. If—it’s roughly what you said. What they’re trying to say is that somehow—or the government wants to be able to prove that Julian Assange was in a conspiracy or aiding and abetting Bradley Manning to get these documents. It’s as if the two were working together, not that Bradley Manning simply furnished the documents to Julian Assange.

And when I say it’s not as—not the way I would say it, exactly—. But let’s take a case. New York Times reporter James Risen, who’s the one who disclosed the warrantless wiretapping that Bush was running, he got those documents from somebody in the national security agency or some agency of the United States government. They didn’t—I presumed—I don’t know this, but I presume the documents were not just dropped on James Risen’s desk at The New York Times or that they simply were mailed to him. I presume there was constant contact. I don’t know this. There may have been contact with Risen and the source. There may have been more.

So the point is that at some point it perhaps crosses into conspiracy. But if I say to my source, well, meet me at the corner of, you know, Hollywood and Vine and there’s a restaurant there and would you drop off the documents, that doesn’t make me a conspirator. If I tell him—you know, hide him under a rock, it doesn’t make me a conspirator.

So the United States is reaching for straws here, because they realize they have a problem. If they can’t get Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in a conspiracy where he actually is aiding and abetting Bradley Manning, they have no case, because then what’s the difference between Julian Assange and The New York Times or WikiLeaks and The New York Times? Every day you pick up your newspapers, they’re filled with classified material that’s been leaked. And so the government has to try—as you said, the key point is for them to turn Bradley Manning on the expectation that he—which may not be true at all—that he, Bradley Manning, can somehow implicate Julian Assange.

JAY: Right. Now—.

RATNER: That’s what the lawyer himself for Bradley Manning said. That’s why Manning is being treated so badly. Sure, he downloaded all these documents and they want to punish him because he did that as a soldier, but they really want—their big fish here is WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

JAY: Now, in the press they’ve been talking about the defense strategy, and it seems mostly about that the psychological state of Bradley Manning was such that he shouldn’t have had access to secrets in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be a case being made that if a soldier comes upon evidence of war crimes and there’s no other way than to go public to expose it, there’s some right, or even duty, to do such a thing. They don’t seem to be going on that tack. They seem to be simply saying that there’s something psychologically, you know, weak, or problems with Bradley, and so he should be excused.

RATNER: You know, at the end of the court hearing last week, I was there with, I said, ten spectators, and one of them was a person who’s, you know, in—was actually in prison—in Baltimore, no less—with Father Berrigan during the—he was the first person to help, I think, pour blood on the draft files in the ’70s and was eventually released from prison. And he was—you know, he’s resister type, you know, plowshares, whatever he—you know, the pacifist resisters. At the end of the court hearing, he—and this is relevant to your question—at the end of the court hearing, he yells out: isn’t it the obligation of a soldier to reveal war crimes when he sees them? And I think that’s exactly the point. It’s the obligation of a soldier to reveal war crimes when he sees them. And that’s, in my view, what Bradley Manning was doing. And so he’s a very sympathetic character for, certainly, people like me who believe that the U.S. has been committing war crimes all over the place without any accountability for them. And Manning has played—obviously, assuming he did what the government says—a crucial role in exposing them.

Now, as you said, the defense has been much more narrow. The defense, at least at the—what they call the Article 32 hearing, which is a preliminary hearing to see if there’s enough evidence to stand trial, he took a sort of psychological defense. He took a twofold defense, really, one that, look it, you would—the government was just allowing millions of documents to be seen by some 3.5 million people who have the same level of security clearance that Bradley Manning had. And so what did they really expect [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah. Just to remind people, the security system that Bradley Manning had access to, just to reinforce what you just said, was—something like 3.5 million people had access to it. It does seem completely crazy that anyone would’ve put anything in that system that was sensitive anyway, knowing so many people had access. But, anyway, go on.

RATNER: Yeah. I mean, the material was all level secret or lower. There was nothing top secret in there. So that’s why you get all this stuff in the diplomatic cables. You did get the “Collateral Murder” video, which was quite important. But it is secret. But it was—3.5 million people had access, and they were—and even though Manning and others had no reason for their work, I think, to have access to all those diplomatic cables, somehow they were given access. So a very sloppy security system. But I’m less concerned by the sloppiness of the security system than I am by the fact that, yes, there’s crimes that were revealed even within that low-level security system.

So one of the defenses here is, look it, this stuff was secret, yes, but it was accessed to everybody. And then they get into Bradley Manning’s psychology. He was gay when he went in, apparently, was harassed very heavily in the military for being gay, for being 5’2″, you know, for just not fitting in. And then they found some—then there were complaints made to his upper people that he shouldn’t be sent to Iraq, to the upper command. But he was sent anyway, and he was sent into this computer room where he worked. And then there were some emails found about him being—looking at gender issues and being very, you know, worried about his gender and thinking about a gender change operation. And there were times when he was—apparently, crawled on the floor in a fetal position, etc.

The point is that the lawyer’s taking not a political defense, not a defense that there’s a right, if not an obligation (which there is), to reveal war crimes and if you can’t get anywhere with your commanding officer you have to reveal them somehow. The lawyer’s not taking that. He’s taking what he thinks is going to do Bradley Manning the best, which is to try and get him—assuming they can prove that he did it—the lowest possible sentence he can. At least that’s my perspective without [crosstalk]

JAY: And I suppose from the narrow point of view of Manning’s well-being, maybe he’s right, ’cause I suppose it’s hard to imagine a military court is going to agree soldiers can reveal secrets if they think it’s a war crime.

RATNER: You know, this—of course, this is a decision the lawyer is making, and it may very well be in Bradley Manning’s best interest. One could make the argument, which if he ran a completely political defense, yes, you’re right, he’s going to get killed in the court-martial, but in the end he would have growing support, and eventually he might force the government into some kind of a pardon for him or to not try him or not treating him as severely. But that’s somewhat speculative. I admit that might be a position I might take. But he has a lawyer who is taking—who is experienced lawyer, who’s a good lawyer, who’s actually trying, I think, to do the best possible thing he can for Bradley Manning.

Now, obviously, it’s relevant to my client, to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, for a couple of big reasons. One is because, as I said, as Bradley Manning’s lawyer himself has said, they are trying to compel Bradley Manning to testify against Julian Assange. And that’s why he was tortured. That’s why he’s being charged like this. That’s why they’re going ahead with a full court-martial. That’s why he’s being treated the way he is. So it’s relevant to WikiLeaks for that.

The second reason it’s relevant is the United States is actively trying to indict Julian Assange. There’s a grand jury sitting in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s been sitting for a year. I haven’t heard much about it lately. But they have an investigation into WikiLeaks. And pursuant to that, we think ultimately that the United States’ goal will be to extradite Julian Assange from either England if he remains there, or Sweden if he winds up in Sweden as a result of the ongoing sex issue with Julian Assange, sexual harassment and rape issue that’s going on in Sweden. So the goal of United States is to get him extradited.

JAY: And is there any reason why he’d be more likely to be extradited from Sweden than England?

RATNER: I want to go to that in one second. That’s a very, very important point.

But the second point about Bradley Manning’s treatment that’s interesting and important with Julian Assange is, if they attempt to extradite Julian Assange, one question will be in the European Court how will he be treated in the United States. Well, if he’s—can he be treated as an enemy combatant? That’s possible—I mean, unlikely, but possible. Will he be put into solitaire like Bradley Manning was, stripped, not allowed access to people? That certainly seems much—you know, very, very likely. Will he be facing a death penalty charge under the Espionage Act? All of that is out there. So when you compare Bradley Manning’s treatment, one of the defenses for Julian Assange, wherever he’s extradited from, would be look at how they treat people in the United States.

Now, your question of will it be easier to extradite him from Sweden than from England, you know, the answer is—I think—my personal opinion I think’s yes, it will be. And I think one of the reasons that I think we see what’s going on, the extradition to Sweden and the fight about that, is the United States would like him in Sweden. I only know that in England (and I know the lawyers well who are—Julian Assange’s lawyers; I know the extradition situation in London), that it is not so easy to get people out of London. It’s a very—it’s a legal system that has very strong defense lawyers. There’s one case of a hacker who went into the Pentagon computer as a young man. He has—the U.S. has been trying to extradite him for eight years. And I’m not saying it’s going to take that long. I don’t know. But he has a lot of support in England, Assange does. I think it’s a much harder case for the U.S. Sweden’s a much smaller country. It’s—even though it has this nice image in the United States, it’s a much more cooperative government with the United States than most people might expect. And it’s the belief of many people that it will be easier for the United States to get Julian Assange out of Sweden.

Now, that brings us to where is Julian Assange’s case. Interestingly, we expected, because it’s within the European context, that a European-wide extradition warrant or an extradition warrant from Sweden to England would be honored quickly. And then, you know, like going from Maryland to New York, you know, interstate, that’s practically what the European system is. And we didn’t expect there to be much difficulty with that extradition. But his lawyers have actually fought hard, and the case was recently argued in the highest court in England, which only takes cases (like the U.S. Supreme Court) when it wants to—it doesn’t have to take them. And the argument was before seven judges who heard this case—I think it was seven; it might’ve been five—five—five judges who heard this case—and it was a vigorous argument. And the issue is an important one that’s being raised, and it sort of implicates what’s wrong with the Swedish system. The Swedish asked for his extradition. A prosecutor in Sweden asked for the extradition from England. And under the arrest warrant system, it has to be a judicial authority. Obviously, a judicial authority is neutral. Prosecutor wants the first case. And so the argument is: is a prosecutor in Sweden a judicial authority? And I thought the court went—you know, took it—they obviously took it seriously. And I’m somewhat hopeful for Julian that he will not have to—for Julian Assange that he will not have to wind up in Sweden. But, you know, it is a European arrest warrant—I mean, a European extradition warrant, so we don’t know.

JAY: Okay. Just quickly, what is the legal basis or precedent, if any, for Manning to take a position that a soldier who comes across evidence of war crimes has some obligation or right to go public?

RATNER: You know, well, it comes out of—it goes back many years, but it certainly goes to Nuremberg. There’s—the legal liability under Geneva Conventions, under our own laws, is that you can’t commit war crimes and you can’t tolerate them being committed; or if you find out information, there’s a legal obligation to actually report it. Now, we would say in the United States, in a narrow way, you have to report it up the chain of command. But, of course, up the chain of command in the United States military is essentially a useless act. It’s useless even if—you know, I’ve seen issues around rape in the military and women who report it. They get totally harassed, essentially drummed out. Much less war crimes. This is—it’s like a wall. There’s no way.

So I don’t think there was any way for Bradley Manning to do anything but what he did. And, you know, the first video, apparently, according to—you know, which we don’t know (again, these are all allegations)—but according to what we read was—that really got him was, you know, there were these two Reuters journalists killed in Iraq, and from a helicopter, and there were a couple of kids wounded. And that’s the video, apparently, he saw and said, this has to come out. And if you look at why it didn’t come out, why are these documents secret, a majority of those documents are secret because the United States wants to hide what its own crimes and problems and issues are. And that was certainly true of the “Collateral” war video.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thank you for having me, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.