It's a secrecy circus at Ft. Meade this week. Tomorrow, the military judge presiding over the most important trial thus far in the 21st century, Col. Denise Lind, will hold an unprecedented closed hearing to determine how much of the trial against Wikileaks source Bradley Manning she will conduct in secret. AP Reports:
Government secrecy reaches a new level this week in the court-martial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning . . .The judge's secret hearing tomorrow was requested by the defense after
. . . prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein . . . said at Feb. 26 hearing that more than half of the government's 141 anticipated witnesses would testify about classified information, necessitating closure of up to 30 percent of the trial.While the U.S. Code of Military Justice does allow limited closing of Court Martial proceedings, it can only be done in extremely limited circumstances related to specific evidence - not a blanket closure of entire portions.
The irony of holding a secret trial of a defendant accused of leaking secrets is not only undemocratic and antithetical to the constitutional principle of a public trial, but it also undermines Manning's defense by lending legitimacy to the government's secrecy assertions. Considering all classification experts agree that the government rampantly over-classifies information, Judge Lind should use this hearing to evaluate the government's secrecy claims without automatic deference when the prosecution insists on shutting out the press and the public for "national security" reasons.
Manning's trial is about the biggest leak in world history, which Manning said he disclosed because he saw the government hiding atrocities that the public should know about. It's a sick irony that the trial that could put him away for life has already been shrouded by the very secrecy Manning challenged.
The court martial proceedings are already inordinately difficult for the media and public to access. Here's my experience from attending Manning's riveting testimony describing how the military tortured him:
Spectators are not allowed to shift too much in their seats, unwrap anything in plastic, or turn the pages of their notebooks too loudly. The bailiff reads a statement before each proceeding that "the public is encouraged to attend" the Court Martial proceedings, but the conditions are hardly welcoming. (The only bathroom is a glorified porta potty.) The security rules change daily - sometimes you are wanded before entering, sometimes not; sometimes you are allowed to wait outside the courtroom, sometimes you are forced to line up; sometimes they dig through your purse with the gusto of my kids looking for an extra $10, sometimes they take a quick glance. My personal favorite is when they counted the pills in every single prescription bottle I had. My feminine products stopped the detailed mole hunt pretty quickly though.The secrecy surrounding Manning's court martial has already made headlines and received more comprehensive coverage in the main-stream-media than the proceedings themselves, despite the fact that the charges against Manning - particularly the Espionage Act and Aiding the Enemy counts - could have tremendous negative impact on the ability of journalists to report actual news as opposed to government talking points. Two months ago, the New York Times took the military to task for the excessive secrecy of the Manning proceedings:
In Private Manning’s case, the issue before the court — whether leaking classified documents can be cast as aiding the enemy — has profound civic implications. People can disagree about what should happen to government employees who do the leaking, but it makes sense that such a fundamental question be debated with as much sunlight as possible.After multiple journalists repeatedly criticized the secrecy and demonstrated their willingness to file Freedom of Information Act lawsuits challenging the lack of transparency, the media and public finally received a copy of the judge's key ruling on the Espionage Act.
But the new-found transparency has only gone so far. Now the parties will be debating in secret how much of the trial for leaking supposed secrets should be held in secret. Tomorrow's hearing will be 90% closed, which means even the intrepid journalists who've been navigating the constantly changing rules at Ft. Meade won't be able to cover it. (Hats off to Kevin Gosztola, Alexa O'Brien, Ed Pilkington, and Nathan Fuller.)
With so much hysteria surrounding Wikileaks and the government defaulting so often toward secrecy, Judge Lind should step in and protect Manning's right to a fair trial and the public's and the press' rights to witness and report on these historic proceedings that could forever impact their First Amendment rights.