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The Army private accused of passing diplomatic cables to the website Wikileaks has made an unusual offer. Bradley Manning says he'll plead guilty to minor charges. But as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, he rejects the idea that he ever acted as a spy or helped America's enemies.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Nearly two and a half years ago, U.S. investigators accused Bradley Manning of pulling off the biggest leak of classified information in American history. They say he accessed embarrassing State Department cables and military field logs and put the information on discs he labeled as Lady Gaga songs. The military sent Manning to a brig in Quantico, Virginia, where supporter Jeff Paterson says his treatment was extreme.
JEFF PATERSON: For nine months, he was kept in complete isolation from other prisoners. He had really no human interaction except for guards that would yell at him every five minutes saying, are you OK? Basically, it was a way to use the pretense of mental health concerns to literally drive him crazy.
JOHNSON: Paterson and other members of a support network protested outside the White House gates. They disrupted a fundraiser for President Obama and tried to generate national outrage over the case. Eventually, authorities moved Manning to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Jailers there let him read and sleep on a normal mattress. But Manning still hasn't had his court martial, even though rules say it should take place 120 days after a person is detained.
Eugene Fidell teaches military law at Yale.
EUGENE FIDELL: This has been one of the slowest courts martial that I can remember. Particularly where the accused is in pretrial confinement, I just don't understand it.
JOHNSON: There's something else Fidell doesn't understand. Military prosecutors in the case almost never make their motions public. Neither does the judge. That leaves Manning's lawyer, David Coombs. He sometimes puts up redacted court papers on his website, but only after military minders OK them. The secrecy is so intense that reporters and human rights groups have sued to get access to information. Eugene Fidell.
FIDELL: People use the phrase the fog of war, but this is a case that seems to be the fog of law.
JOHNSON: And then, as if things couldn't get any stranger, Manning's lawyer said this month that Manning had offered to plead guilty to a few minor violations. But the idea was not part of a plea agreement with military prosecutors, and Manning is guaranteed nothing in exchange. Richard Rosen is a military law expert at Texas Tech.
RICHARD ROSEN: Accused will often plead with exceptions and substitutions to some other offense in the hopes of, say, getting leniency.
JOHNSON: Under the court rules, prosecutors can still go ahead and bring Manning to court martial on the very serious charges of aiding the enemy and misusing classified information. Manning supporter Paterson says lots of people who worked with Manning in Iraq routinely violated the rules on handling secure information.
PATERSON: Military prosecution is only interested in what happened, whereas the defense team wants to tell people why things happened.
JOHNSON: Why things happened has always been the heart of Manning's public defense, that he was a whistleblower offended by American abuses in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a theme picked up by musician Graham Nash, who played this special song for Manning at a recent fundraiser in California.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRAHAM NASH: (Singing) Tell the truth and it will set you free.
JOHNSON: Manning's supporters, who include Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, hope his alleged mistreatment will translate into a reduced prison sentence. The issue could come up this week at a court hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland. But it's not clear the military judge will buy that argument, says scholar Eugene Fidell.
FIDELL: This entire case has been conducted so far in a very bizarre way, both by the prosecution and the defense.
JOHNSON: And Fidell says, why should the end of the case follow any different pattern? Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.