Bradley Manning, the American soldier accused of providing classified information to WikiLeaks, is offering to plead guilty to some offenses in exchange for having the most serious charges against him dropped.
The offer was made yesterday by Manning’s lawyer, David E. Coombs, during a motion hearing in Manning’s court martial at Fort Meade, Md., as first reportedby blogger Kevin Gosztola.
This doesn’t mean that Manning is pleading guilty, however, as his lawyer stressed in a blog post.
“To clarify, PFC Manning is not pleading guilty to the specifications as charged by the Government,” wrote Coombs. “Rather, PFC Manning is attempting to accept responsibility for offenses that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses.”
What Manning did, basically, is indicate that he is willing to admit that he leaked documents and information to WikiLeaks. Accepting this and other lesser charges doesn’t mean he’s also pleading guilty to charges stemming from the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud Act. In particular, he’s still not accepting the worst of the charges brought against him, that of “aiding the enemy.”
Manning could potentially face the death penalty for that latter offense, even though the prosecutors have repeatedly said that they will not ask for it, instead settling for a life sentence at most.
This is part of a process called “pleading by exceptions and substitutions,” which would allow the process to be simplified. Coombs could focus on limited points of contention, leaving aside charges that are less important and easier for the government to prove. The judge will now decide whether this is an acceptable offer. After that, the government could still choose to prosecute Manning for those charges. Coombs also wanted to clarify that a plea deal and an agreement with the government is not on the table.
WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, still stuck at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, has repeatedly argued that the U.S. government wants Manning to incriminate him, allowing federal prosecutors to charge Assange with espionage. As his theory goes, if the government can prove that Assange wasn’t simply the passive recipient of the leaks but was also instrumental in obtaining them, then he wouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment and could face criminal charges.
Such a theory, however, has never been confirmed by government officials, but the existence of a grand jury to investigate WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has been known for more than a year. Such an investigation, just like any other grand jury probe, is supposed to be secret.
Just yesterday, in a related trial in which three alleged WikiLeaks’ associates are appealing a judge’s decision ordering Twitter to release their account information to the government, Judge Liam O’Grady ruled that he couldn’t release the requested documents related to that grand jury investigation because it’s still open.
“For reasons stated in the memorandum of the United States, unsealing of the documents at this time would damage an ongoing criminal investigation,” wrote the judge, effectively admitting that the government is still trying to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as reported by Wired.
Manning’s court martial is set to begin in February 2013, more than two and a half years after being arrested in Iraq. His detention came after hacker Adrian Lamo reported to the FBI that Manning admitted in an online chat that he was the source of some of WikiLeaks’ most famous revelations, such as the “Collateral Murder” video, the diplomatic cables and the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs.