these might be giants: report from Fort Meade

I went back to Fort Meade this week, more than two years after  Manning was first brought to court. Now in dispute during these last pre-trial motions before the court martial, now scheduled for June 3: those two-plus years.

If there’s not another delay, that means that Bradley Manning’s court-martial will begin almost exactly three years after he was first detained in Kuwait, on May 26, 2010. Please excuse the bold/italics: that’s  three years which already have felt plenty long in actual life — without imagining I’d spent them in military detention, much of it in a single cell without all my clothes.

All of this despite the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes a guarantee of “speedy trial” that must begin within 120 days of arrest. And much of last week’s proceedings were about that — whether all the delays were due to inevitable national-security issues, and whether the government is obligated to cooperate with the defense and share what it found in its long investigation. There were also some interesting rulings — including how much the trial will cover Manning’s motivations for his actions, something important when someone is  charged with “aiding the enemy.”

But I won’t write much about the hard news here: I’ve been hired by Boston Review to do that (yay!) so you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, check out summaries from Ed Pilkington at the Guardian, Julie Tate at the Washington Post, and Hari Sreenivasan of PBS’s Newshour  (who delivers his report in that worried middle-of-the-road tone we all know so well).

David-Coombs-attorney-for-0071You should definitely check out Scott Shane’s profile of David Coombs, seen at right exiting the Fort Meade courthouse.

When I decided what to title this post, Lt. Col. Coombs is one of the two people I meant. I never got a chance to see William Kunstler or Clarence Darrow at work, but I now feel I kind of know how that feels.

Shane’s coverage of the case itself is predictably bland. But he manages, if you look at it closely, to convey some of the slyness of the veteran advocate:

Mr. Coombs, 43, is deep into one of the most high-profile American military cases in recent years, leading an aggressive, if unorthodox, defense. In weeks of pretrial hearings, the tall, crew-cut lawyer, flanked by uniformed military lawyers who make up the rest of the defense team, has attacked the government’s case on every conceivable ground, even as he conceded that Private Manning was the WikiLeaks source.

Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served 12 years in the Army before leaving active duty and opening a military-oriented defense practice in 2009 in Providence, R.I. He has worked, both in court and in a public speech last month, to frame Private Manning’s disclosure of documents not as a reckless act of national security vandalism but as a deed of conscience, intended to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.

It was an honor to watch Coombs deliver his speedy-trial brief, in which he countered the government’s catalog of everything they’d been doing by enumerating the ways in which it could have acted with more alacrity, adding on every single week in which he saw government inaction “while Pfc. Manning remained in pre-trial detention.”

Each individual omission added up like layers of paint on a canvas, until Coombs closed by citing the Rule of Court-Martial 707(d):”The accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial have been violated. And the sole remedy for such a speedy trial violation is dismissal [of the affected charges] with prejudice.”

The whole presentation led to a super-caffeinated rebuttal by the prosecutor, which told me that it was as brilliant as it had looked.

The other giant I met this week was someone I knew only from her posts at Firedoglake, without realizing who she was: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who gives her take on the trial below.

jesselyn_radackWith all my attention around soldiers who dissent, I find I’m sorely ignorant of much of the history of civilian whistleblowing, and had forgotten about Radack in specific. And I’m not sure I ever knew her full story, as one of the few employees in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department who actively questioned its behavior in the aftermath of 9/11.  The photo is from the Brown alumni magazine around that time, when she refused to help interrogators corners in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.

Radack has been offering legal and logistical support to Manning’s defense, adding him to the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblowers honor roll. I hope I can go to DC to meet with her and the rest of GAP, to explore what whistleblowing really means in the 21st century. (And maybe ask how she’s kept her  multiple sclerosis at bay, since with her it’s still the invisible kind).

One of the most fun, and humbling, things about this project is how often I come into contact with such giants. Though it has me listening to this band, so much that I had to include the video below. Tell me the lyrics to the song don’t get you hoping for a whistleblower of your own.

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Video: Michael Ratner tells Manning’s story, David Coombs explains

michael_ratnerI mentioned this presentation in yesterday’s Manning post, and thought I’d post it at the end. But when I actually saw it, I realized that as important as David Coombs was the presentation by Michael Ratner, longtime anchor of the Center for Constitutional Rights.    When I met Ratner in 2004, was bemused when I told him that some American soldiers were nearly as powerless as the Guantanamo detainees I was interviewing him about. But that was before Wikileaks rocked CCR’s world, likely due to this one military prankster. (Also before Ratner’s late mentor, William Kunstler, became a major character in this book.) At right, Ratner in Democracy Now’s coverage of last week’s proceedings.

Now, watch as Ratner narrates — with aplomb born of outrage— the experience Manning described of his unprecedented pre-trial detention.   If former Major William Kunstler was watching from the beyond, he was applauding.  Watch that part, even if you have no patience for the careful arguments of Manning’s attorney.

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Saving Breanna Elizabeth Manning

If you just looked at  my Twitter feed (at right) you might think that my book is about the eponymous private that’s in the title — that all that came before, from stories of 1781 mutinies to Phil Ochs tributes, was all marshaled in support of one 24-year-old charged with treason by the national security state.

Not so. But it’s been clear, for a very long time, that the case of “the Wikileaks guy” did contain many of the elements that make this topic so compelling: the ethical challenge thrown up by dissent, the mixed motivations, the charged gender subtexts and faux-masculine performances assumed by people in authority.

This is not the blog in which I try to unpack any of that.

But this was the week in which Private Manning gave personal testimony under oath for the very first time: I had no choice but to pay as close attention as I could, even though I couldn’t go to Fort Meade and watch the proceedings.

In a courtroom sketch, Bradley Manning explains his Qauntico marine brig cellManning’s attorney, David Coombs, was presenting a detailed case for reducing or dropping charges against Manning due to the over-long term of pre-trial confinement and the conditions of hir confinement at Quantico, with the governmen repeatedly asserting that they’d done so for justified reasons. And for the first time, with full knowledge of Manning and counsel, the gender issue that has tormented me from the beginning was brought into the open — thus the title of this post. (Tormented for reasons of confidentiality and respect, not for any reasons of transphobia.)

The only real news this morning is that Manning’s court-martial has been delayed until March (from Feb), which means that the trial might not be decided before three full years have passed since his arrest. (Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, is speaking about it publicly this evening, broadcast on C-SPAN: I can’t wait.)

In  case you don’t follow my parallel site on Facebook, here are some links to get you up to speed:

  • The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, as brilliant as they come. Her title: ““I’m Stuck Inside This Cage”: Bradley Manning Testifies.” She starts with Manning’s testimony about his Kuwait detention and makes us feel it from there.
  • Alexa O’Brien at Second Sight, who tweets at @carwinb, has been there every day with sharp reporting, and shared important trial documentation as well.

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Bradley Manning: WIRED folds, and my dilemma is moot.

WIRED has just released the full transcripts of the conversations between Manning and that snake Adrian Lamo – meaning that everyone that cares about Manning, thinks him hero or traitor, has no way of not knowing about the gender issues. They’re mesmerizing reading, though I agree with Gawker that Lamo turns out to be even more unethical than we knew before (and as much of a scumbag as Glenn Greenwald has said all along.)

And here I just got my letter from David Coombs, basically refusing to discuss it – and I was trying to figure out if that was a coded request to honor what was left of his client’s privacy. Now, I feel that writing about this respectfully is the only way to show that respect. What do you think?

More later when I’ve finished reading the transcripts:  comments sorely requested. Was it Hemingway who said, “The writer’s job is to find out the truth and then write it. But that can be very difficult.”?