There is a fundamental disagreement at the heart of the United States’s prosecution of Bradley Manning, and it was evident minutes after his Article 32 hearing began on December 16, in a small courtroom at Fort Meade. As per the United States’s Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), in an Article 32 hearing—similar to a hearing before a grand jury—evidence is presented to a military officer, like a judge, who decides whether the accused will be court-martialed. But first, the officer asks both the defense and the prosecution whether they have any reason to doubt his impartiality. When Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the investigating officer in Manning’s hearing, popped the question, the lead defense attorney, David Coombs, stood and answered with understated poise, “Yes sir.”
Almanza seemed taken aback. An Army reservist, Almanza is a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, which has an open investigation into WikiLeaks, the freedom-of-information group to which Manning allegedly leaked hundreds of thousands of government cables. Before a packed gallery and several military police officers—plus four attorneys for the government and two co-counsels next to Manning at the defense table, all wearing the standard Army Combat Uniform—Coombs launched into a line of questioning that resembled a cross-examination. His primary complaint was that Almanza had granted the government its full list of twenty witnesses—ten of whom were also requested by the defense—while denying all but two of the defense’s unique thirty-eight.
But there was a deeper objection within the complaint.
“Let’s get these witnesses up here to discuss: why is this information classified?” Coombs said, in an animated oratory that contrasted with the rote, procedural feel of the hearing. An Iraq veteran and lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve, Coombs wished to challenge claims about Manning such as those made by Admiral Mike Mullen in 2010, that Julian Assange and his alleged source, Manning, may have on his hands “the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” Almanza determined that the question was not appropriate for the hearing and chose to deny the witnesses Coombs had hoped would testify on the classification issue.
“Where is the damage?” Coombs asked. “Where is the harm? That’s what the defense wanted to get out today and in this hearing and yet you ruled no, we’re not going to hear that.”
Coombs charged that, given the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks and Almanza’s possible interest in getting a plea out of Manning, Almanza’s impartiality was open to question. Add the denial of thirty-eight defense witnesses, Coombs said, and the facts demanded that Almanza step aside in favor of an officer untainted by the appearance of bias. Almanza declined to recuse himself, and the six days of proceedings that followed mostly reflected a narrow scope of issues centered around a single question: did Manning do it? The prosecution brought forward a litany of evidence to show in minute detail how Manning perpetrated the biggest leak in American history.
Manning’s defense, meanwhile, all but conceded that Manning was the source of the documents, highlighting instead such mitigating factors as his struggles with gender identity and the Army’s failure to address his manifest psychological and emotional problems. In closing arguments, Coombs accused the government of overreacting and asked that the charges be reduced, most significantly by eliminating the potentially death sentence–carrying charge of “aiding the enemy,” a request predicated on his position that the leaks did no harm.