Groups decry secrecy surrounding Manning court martial

Friday, July 6, 2012

Media and civil rights groups are objecting to the lack of disclosure in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning. The 23-year-old from Crescent, Okla., is accused of giving classified information to the secret-sharing site WikiLeaks and faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy.

On June 21, the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals issued a one-sentence order refusing to release court documents related to the Manning case.

Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Guantanamo Project, criticized the court’s decision. “It’s very clear in federal courts that the First Amendment governs access to documents,” Kadidal told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Out of 13 federal appellate courts, 12 have either said the First Amendment does apply or assume it applies.” He also pointed out that military judge Col. Denise Lind had read portions of the briefs aloud in court, indicating that not all of the documents are classified.

On March 12, the Reporters Committee sent a letter on behalf of 47 news organizations to Jeh Johnson, Department of Defense general counsel, asking that the same rules for media access that apply in the Guantanamo military commissions apply in the Manning case.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and the nation’s highest military courts have said the American press and public have a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings,” the letter states. “But by refusing to provide reasonable and proper notice of such proceedings and the nature of the documents filed in connection therewith, the military justice system has severely undercut this foundational tenet of American democracy.”

A series of new transparency measures at Guantanamo that include opening proceedings to public viewing and making many court documents available online have led to the release of full transcripts of the arraignments of five suspected 9/11 plotters at Guantanamo Bay, but no similar disclosures have been made in the Manning case. The Department of Defense replied in May to the Reporters Committee to say only that the letter was to be referred to the Joint Service Committee on Military Justice. On April 24, Col. Lind responded to a similar letter from the Center for Constitutional Rights seeking access to the Manning case. Lind noted that she had received the letter but that the motion was “denied.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights, along with several other groups and individuals including The Nation, Amy Goodman of the daily TV/radio news program “Democracy Now!,” and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, filed a petition for extraordinary relief in the U.S. Army Court of Appeals on May 24.

The petition sought “public access to documents in the court-martial proceedings against Pfc. Bradley Manning, including papers filed by the parties, court orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation said in a press release that her magazine believes “citizens have a right to know what their government is doing. IT IS therefore vital that the media covering Pfc. Bradley Manning’s court martial be able to view documents filed in public proceeding.”

On June 8, the court summarily denied the petition, asserting that the petitioners had not met “an ‘extremely heavy burden’ to justify the granting of a writ” and that the Freedom of Information Act would eventually provide for the release of the information.

The petitioners replied a week later demanding more immediate public access to court documents, but on June 21 the Army Court of Appeals issued the one-sentence response: “On consideration of the Petition for Extraordinary Relief in the Nature of a Writ of Prohibition and Mandamus, the petition is DENIED.”

On June 26, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the other parties appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.  According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the government has 10 business days to respond to the appeal.

Manning has been in custody since he was originally charged in 2010 and has been held since April 2011 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Col. Lind recently postponed Manning’s trial from Sept. 21 to November or January, citing procedural delays.

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