Michael Ratner: Bradley Manning offers to plea to a lesser charge; verification of grand jury investigating Julian Assange
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who is president emeritus at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s a board member of The Real News Network. Thanks very much for joining us again, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: What do you got for us this week?
RATNER: It’s a big week, really, for the Bradley Manning case and for Julian Assange, particularly Manning. As weâ€”as your listeners know, Manning has been accused of aiding the enemy, allegedly having uploaded hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks. He is a private in the U.S. Army. He is now at Fort Meade in prison. And his court martial is proceeding, but in short spaces, a few days every month. And then, starting in January or February, the full court martial proceeding will go forward.
Yesterday or [incompr.] this week, what happened is that Bradley Manning offered to plead guilty, which is really an incredible development. He made an offer to plead guilty to certain charges, but not the main charges against him, the main charges being aiding the enemy, which actually has the potential for a death penalty, espionage charges, hacking computers, etc. He apparently made an offer to plead guilty to mishandling government or classified files. We don’t know exactly, but that would, of course, carry a much lower charge.
Now, what’s interesting about that plea: it’s of course the first time that Manning has, if you want to call it that, admitted to taking documents and uploading them to WikiLeaks. But more importantly, it’s an effort to finally try and move the government a little bit, because up until this time, the government has been unwilling to negotiate with Manning on a plea. They’ve said, well, 40 years or something, we’ll throw this at him, because the government has wanted to get Manning, if he knows anything, to testify against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. So the lawyer for Manning, David Coombs, came forward with this plea to mishandling government documents.
Now, what’s most interesting about a case like this in the military is that plea does not have to be accepted by the judge. The judge is being asked to accept that plea. Hopefully for Manningâ€”or at least that’s from his lawyer’s point of view, and Manning, that she will accept it. Even if she accepts it, what’s even more interesting is the prosecution can still go ahead and try and prove a more severe case against Bradley Manning. Put that into this context.
Manning also made a choice yesterday to be tried only by the judge and not by what in the military we would call a jury, but other privates and other officers who would constitute a jury. So he waived any possibility of a trial by other people (jury) and is going before the judge. So it’sâ€”looks to me from sitting here that he’s making his best effort to get the lowest sentence possible, pleading to the lowest kind of thing he can plead to, hoping the judge can accept that, and then the trial will be done with and he’ll get a much shorter sentence than the 40 years the government is doing.
We should also understand the timing. Yesterday was the day after the election, and my guess is that Manning and his lawyer presumed there was no chance of the government or the president, really, saying okay to this prior to the election, because it would make him look weak on national security, etc., etc.
Now, of course, there’s more of a chance. So one scenario here is that the judge takes the plea. The other scenario is that she doesn’t take the plea, and then Manning is back where he starts, with a trial in February. My guess is that something’s happening here, because ultimately I don’t think the government wants a long trial in February in which tens of thousands of documents come out, with a lot more media attention to this case. I think if they can get Manning a sentence on a plea, they’ll do it. The question is: will they give up Manning’s testimony against Julian Assange, assuming he knows anything? So that was one major development.
JAY: Okay. Let me ask you a couple of questions about that. First of all, the fact that this has gone public, does that mean the government has more or less agreed to this? And you’re saying the judge needs to agree, but is there in fact a deal there?
RATNER: It’s a good question. The answer to that, as far as we know, is no, that this plea was made outside of the government. We don’t know that, but I think so, because from what we knew before is the government was unwilling to deal with less than something like 40 years in this case and unwilling to back down at all. So I don’t think the government is involved in this. And the government may well say, we reject this, even if the judge says yes. In that case, the government can go ahead and prove its case.
But also in that case, the judge is the decider of the facts and may just decide, look it, this guy was willing to plead guilty to this; I’m going to give him a sentence based on that and not on what the government, you know, tries to prove. So it seems to be an interesting tactic from Manning’s and David Coombs’s point of view.
JAY: Okay. Go on. What else caught you this week? Oh, actually, let me ask you one more question before I do that, the idea that they might be more likely to do this after the election, ’cause Obama didn’t want to look weak on national security and such. But there isâ€”the Obama record on whistleblowers ain’t so good, is it?
RATNER: It’s a disaster. And I’m not saying they would let Bradley Manning off. You know, their record on whistleblowers is six already, which is twice what all other prior administrations has done with regard to prosecutions for whistleblowers. So it’s bad. Their secrecy is bad. And certainly they want to make a lesson out of Bradley Manning. But it may be enough of a lesson to give him ten years, not to give him life. But we don’t know what they’re thinking. On the other hand, Julian Assange comes into this case right at this point.
JAY: Actually, Michael, let me just add oneâ€”let me add one thing quickly, ’cause in the introduction I neglected to say you are the U.S. attorney for Julian Assange. But go on.
RATNER: Yes. That’s correct. I do represent Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the United States. And what came out at the trial yesterday also has an impact on Julian Assange in a couple of ways, but the main one being one of the demands at the Bradley Manning case yesterday was that the grand jury testimony from what we call the WikiLeaks grand jury sitting in the eastern district of Maryland was that he get, as part of his discovery process, those grand jury minutes, because they’re necessary to Bradley Manning’s defense. That was turned down by the judge on the grounds that that grand jury is still ongoing. So that means there’s still an ongoing grand jury investigating Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
And a second verification of that came out in what we call the Twitter subpoena case. The grand jury in Virginiaâ€”or, rather, Maryland, actually asked for documents from Twitter regarding Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. They issued subpoenas. Those are in litigation now around unsealing various documents, etc. The judge in the grand jury case says that he is not willing to unseal those documents, because the grand jury is actually ongoing in terms of that investigation. So in terms of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, it justâ€”it verifies that this government, the United States government, is really hot on the trail of getting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange indicted if they haven’t done it already.
JAY: Okay. Thanks very much, Michael.
RATNER: Thank you very much, Paul.
JAY: See you next week. And join us next week for Michael Ratner’s report on The Real News Network.