FT. MEADE, Md. — Army Pfc. Bradley Manning pleaded guilty Thursday to sending huge digital archives of secret U.S. military and diplomatic records to the WikiLeaks website, saying he was motivated by a U.S. foreign policy “obsessed with killing and capturing people.”
Manning, 25, sat erect in dress blues beside his lawyers in a military courtroom and read aloud for more than an hour — slowly but sometimes stumbling over his words — from a 35-page, handwritten statement that described his personal angst over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I began to become depressed with the situation we had become mired in year after year,” he said.
After his nearly three years in jail, Manning’s sometimes rambling, sometimes riveting confession offered the first public insights into what drove the former low-level intelligence analyst to play a role in what prosecutors called the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history — an estimated 700,000 documents in all.
It is unlikely, however, to settle the argument of whether the pale, thin soldier in wire-rim glasses deliberately aided America’s enemies and put U.S. lives at risk, as prosecutors contend, or was a whistle-blower who committed civil disobedience to expose flaws in U.S. policies, as his supporters say.
Manning said his goal was to spark a domestic debate about U.S. foreign policy and “to make the world a better place.” He said he thought the leaks “might be embarrassing” but would not harm the United States.
Manning said he alone was responsible for uploading to WikiLeaks highly classified combat videos of U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, detailed logs of U.S. military patrols and incidents, a memo from an unnamed intelligence agency, assessments of terrorism suspects held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and diplomatic cables from U.S. embassies around the globe.
The release of the material on the anti-secrecy website beginning in February 2010 outraged U.S. officials, who said the leaks endangered intelligence sources and that the sometimes unflattering diplomatic dispatches embarrassed key allies. In Tunisia, allegations of corruption revealed in the files helped spur civil unrest that ultimately overthrew the autocratic regime.
Prosecutors are expected to present a detailed assessment of the alleged damage to national security caused by the leaks when Manning is sentenced.
Under a plea arrangement, Manning pleaded guilty Thursday to 10 criminal charges of misusing classified material, including unauthorized possession and willful communication of information from military databases. He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge from the military.
But Manning also pleaded not guilty to 12 far more serious charges, including aiding the enemy and multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act. He is scheduled to face a court-martial beginning June 3. If convicted, he could face a life sentence.
Defense lawyers hope that prosecutors will decide that 20 years is enough punishment and will dismiss the remaining charges to avoid a public court-martial with 140 witnesses discussing a deeply embarrassing breakdown in the military’s system for safeguarding classified information.
The public relations fallout for the military already has been significant. Protesters urging Manning’s release routinely converge at the gates of Ft. Meade for pretrial hearings. On Saturday, they marked his 1,000th day in custody with rallies in 70 cities in the U.S. and abroad.
Manning’s comments were his first in court since November, when he testified about the harsh treatment he received at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia after he was arrested in Iraq in May 2010. He said he was held in solitary confinement at Quantico for up to 23 hours a day, and considered suicide.
Asked repeatedly Thursday by the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, if he wanted to go forward with the guilty pleas, Manning answered each time with short, crisp words: “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, your honor.”
He then read his statement. “I am a 25-year-old private first class in the Army,” he began.
Manning said he enlisted in the Army to gain “real world experience,” telling recruiters he was interested in “geopolitical matters” and advanced computer skills. He said he nearly washed out during basic training because “I quickly realized I was neither physically or mentally ready.”
But he persevered, he said, and eventually was deployed as an Army intelligence analyst with a top-secret clearance to Contingency Operating Station Hammer near Baghdad. Upset by what he read in diplomatic cables and on a classified military network, he said he soon began collecting and storing classified material, taking some of it home to his quarters and printing or downloading it on his personal laptop.
“I looked everywhere and anywhere for information,” he said.
In December 2009, he said, he started “conducting research” on WikiLeaks because the website seemed dedicated to “exposing corruption.” He continued to follow the site, because “it is something good analysts do. … I routinely monitored their website.”
While on leave visiting his aunt in Potomac, Md., he said, “I tried to decide what to do with” the classified material on his personal computer. He traveled to Boston and told his boyfriend, Tyler, about the material, but he “was not excited about it.”
When he returned to Maryland, a blizzard hit; so, suddenly snowbound, “I debated what to do” about the materials, he said. “Hold on to them or disclose them to a press agency?”
He said he called the Washington Post, but a reporter said she “did not believe him” and turned down his offer to provide the secret files. He said he then called the New York Times public editor and left a message, but “I never received a reply.”
In February 2010, sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Rockville, Md., he visited the WikiLeaks website, he said, and “I clicked on the Submit Documents link.”
Over the next few months, he uploaded other documents and material, including encrypted gun-sight video and audio from a July 2007 incident in Baghdad in which two U.S. Apache helicopters killed a dozen people, including a photographer and driver working for the Reuters news agency. The military later said the helicopter crew mistook a camera lens for a weapon, but Manning called the video “war porn.”
In leaking the classified material, he added, “I felt I accomplished something that would allow me to have a clear conscience.”