Podcast: David Coombs, Chelsea Manning’s trial attorney

May 14, 2017 | 0 comments

In this podcast, lead court martial defense attorney for Chelsea Manning, David Coombs, reflects on the case, working with the Support Network, and her pending release this week.

David Coombs, Chelsea Manning's lead trial defense attorney

by Courage to Resist

“Looking back on the seven years, really, since being a part of this case, it is mind-boggling to think how many hours that were put into the case. The amount of motions, the amount of discovery, really over a million pages basically of discovery looked at in the trial…. It was one of the most important cases in our time for freedom of the press. I think it still hasn’t been worked out as to how this will impact the way we view classified evidence, and over classification.  The problem with our government making more and more secret. At a time in which transparency is important, for not only legitimacy for what we do as the United States, but from the standpoint of who we elect, and how we expect those that we have elected to perform their job. Many of the issues that were so important at that time, are in today’s headlines as well. Transparency within our government, understanding the motivations of our political leaders, and who they may, or may not, owe favors to. That type of openness and transparency was needed in 2010, and is needed today.” – David Coombs

Runtime: 40:08 minutes

Note from Jeff Paterson, Courage to Resist project director

In this podcast, David Coombs speaks in considerable detail, from a personal perspective, about our positive and successful collaboration to support Chelsea. It’s truly an honor to be held in such high regard. As the primary liaison between the Chelsea Manning Support Network, and the legal defense team, I’m slightly concerned that he’s giving me a bit too much credit personally for the collective efforts of many. For a better overview of the entire grassroots efforts of the Support Network, I encourage folks to check out Rainey Reitman’s podcast and reflections.

Full Transcript

Eric Klein: This week, after seven years in military prison, Chelsea Manning walks free. My name is Eric Klein. This is the Courage to Resist podcast.

Recently I recorded an interview with Chelsea Manning’s civilian defense attorney, David Coombs.

David Coombs: Looking back on the seven years, really, since being a part of this case, it is mind-boggling to think how many hours were put into this case – the amount of motions, the amount of discovery, over – really over a million pages basically of discovery looked at through the trial.

Eric: David Coombs is not the kind of person, in my opinion, to grandstand or make sweeping statements about the importance of the Chelsea Manning case – the kinds of things that make a podcaster’s job easier, but when I pressed him to share his impression of what it all means this is what he had to say:

David: It was one of the most important cases, I think, in our time for freedom of the press. I think it still hasn’t been worked out as to how this will impact the way we view classified evidence and over-classification – the problem with that – with our government making more and more secret, at a time in which transparency is important for not only legitimacy of what we do as the United States, but from the standpoint of who we elect and how we expect those that we have elected to perform their job.

Many of the issues that were so important at that time and kind of in today’s headlines as well, transparency in our government, understanding the motivations of our political leaders and who they may or may not owe favors to. That type of openness and transparency was needed in 2010 and is needed today.

Eric: Through it all, his many years working on the case, David Coombs had one main conduit to the vast Chelsea Manning support network – Jeff Paterson.

David: Because of our trial strategy, and then more importantly because of the efforts outside of the courtroom in positively portraying Manning, the message that was put out was that this is not the type of person who deserves 35 years and ultimately even though a judge was not convinced of that, a President of the United States was. And if not for the efforts of Jeff Paterson and the Manning Support Network and Courage to Resist, there’s no way that a president would spend the political capital to grant a commutation.

Eric: David Coombs’ involvement with Chelsea Manning begins in 2010, when the information regarding then Bradley Manning began to come to light, after the government had released Manning’s name and indicated that Manning was being accused of having released the Apache helicopter video, and the army was pursuing a court marshal.

David: It became clear that this was going to be a high-profile case, certainly as WikiLeaks continued to release various items that they had received from Manning. During that time period, there was two military counsel that were assigned to Chelsea, and Chelsea wanted to get a civilian counsel, but the one big unknown was whether or not she could afford to hire one.

And there were several people that were in the running. I personally, when I was contacted by the defense team, I told them, well, I wasn’t for sure I could do the case because I had another high profile murder case that I was doing at the time. But I said I would be more than happy to brainstorm, at least initial few weeks of the case with them, in order to ensure they got off on the right foot. And that was really kind of how I became Manning’s attorney because early on they had a lot of questions about classified evidence, how they should handle it, what steps they should be taking early on to ensure that the defense and the defense strategy was being built correctly.

And so during that time period, without being paid or without really being a part of the defense team, I just simply spoke with the military counsel and gave them my suggestions. And then within maybe two weeks after that time period – so we’re dealing really with July of 2010-time frame, that was the first time I heard of Jeff Paterson’s name.

And Jeff, I think right at the end of the July, put out that they were starting the Bradley Manning Support Network and they indicated that they would be accepting donations for Manning’s legal defense, and they took it upon themselves to promise that they would pay for a civilian counsel to represent Bradley Manning.

So at that point I didn’t know anything about Jeff Paterson – had no idea of his background and I did some research, of course, and found that he was part of Courage to Resist. He was basically the – the head of that organization and, you know, doing a lot of work for soldiers who were essentially conscientious objectors, and so at that point and time, again, not a lot of interaction with him.

But then once I was officially retained I gave him notice that I was retained as the counsel. And I think that’s kind of the start of our relationship that went really from August of 2010 to today, and I’ve nothing but respect for Jeff and the work that he has accomplished over that time period.

Eric: Speaking to David Coombs, for the Courage to Resist podcast, on the even of Chelsea Manning’s release from military prison after all of the years working on her behalf, I really want to get a sense of how David saw the entire effort. I wanted to know if he was prepared to put the case into a larger context.

David: If I had seen the mountain that was in front of me that I needed to climb, that would have been a very difficult task then to take that first step. But luckily you don’t really appreciate what you have to do at the time because it’s not clear, you know, the obstacles that you’re going to face. But going, I guess, on the relationship with Jeff, you know, he reached out after I informed him that I was going to be hired as the civilian counsel.

He immediately indicated that he wanted to be a positive for the defense – never wanted to be a negative – was willing to do whatever he could, essentially, to help support then Bradley Manning, and to ensure that Bradley Manning got a fair trial.

And, you know, the interesting dynamic for Jeff was he was, on the one hand, obviously, now heading the Bradley Manning Support Network with an acceptance of the fact that he was going to, with the organization, raise the funds necessary to create a legal defense for Brad, and at the same time, though, he was dealing with a lot of the negative press that was coming out, mostly from the government, about the nature of the leaks, about WikiLeaks, about whether or not the information that Bradley had released caused damage to national security or had caused the loss of life.

And really the thing that he was missing in being able to respond to that was the PR strategy that he wanted to develop. He knew what he was doing as far as creating the organization, as creating the message, but he didn’t have the messenger. And that was really kind of a difficulty between the legal strategy that I was trying to propose, and the PR strategy that he was trying to push forward, because his task was getting out the positive message of Manning – getting out information that would encourage people to donate and to get involved and to believe that, hey, Manning is a person that we need to get behind and we need to ensure that we’re there at every court hearing, that we’re out protesting what’s happening, that we’re trying to get both local and national news to pay attention to the case, and to ensure that those in the government are aware that what Bradley Manning did was a service to our country and not an act of somebody who was a traitor.

And, you know, with that herculean task he was always conscious of how that would play into my legal strategy, and those don’t always work in the same ways. The PR strategy is nice in getting people involved in the case, but for me my sole focus was trying the case in which I could save Manning’s life and I knew the government really wanted to get the “aiding the enemy” conviction. I knew that they wanted to get life for Manning and so we had to carefully control the message that was coming from the defense in order to play to the audience that we wanted to get a favorable from.

And so early on the decision was made to go with a military judge alone, and the reason for that was because we believed that a military judge would be able to listen to all the facts, see all the evidence, and realize that Manning was actually doing something that she thought was the right thing to do, and that she was hoping it would actually help, and not hurt, the United States.

And given that that was the message that we were trying to give to the court, a judge was going to be the best audience to be receptive to that — as opposed to a panel, who just because of the very makeup of the officers and enlisted on the panel, would be people who have served majority of their lives in the military, and just simply follow orders and don’t question them.

So, this was right out from the beginning going to be an important case to control the message. And Jeff was always respectful of that even when it made his job all the more difficult to do. To put it kind of into perspective, at the end of the actual court martial, and that was in the August of 2013-time frame – during the three years that Jeff was involved in the case, he had successfully raised over 1.4 million dollars for Manning’s defense. Much of that, obviously, went towards public awareness, went towards all of the efforts to control how Manning was being portrayed in the press, but that’s a huge task to raise that amount of money from, I believe, over 22,000 individuals who donated something to Manning’s defense.

And all the while Jeff was the person who — along with Emma Cape, Kevin Zeese, Daniel Ellsberg, Colonel Ann Wright, Kevin Gasztola, Bob Meola, and others — a huge organization of people who are volunteering their time. He’s doing this and raising these funds without actually having somebody who is close to Brad as a spokesperson. That in of itself is amazing, because normally in a given case either it’s the attorney who’s out there doing the media circuit, putting out the message for their client or it’s a family member that’s very close to the accused and therefore has instant credibility with the media and kind of, again, put out a positive character message.

In our case we didn’t have either, because I didn’t want to be the person out there speaking to the media, because the person I really needed to convince was the military judge. I was concerned that if I was doing the media circuit I would be a less effective spokesperson for Manning, where it really counted the most, and that was in the courtroom.

Manning had very little family to speak of that were in a position to actually be that type of spokesperson and ultimately nobody was able to step up to do that. So really Jeff was working with one hand tied behind his back the entire time that he was raising the funds for Manning’s legal defense. And in spite of that, they started the Bradley Manning Support Network, they did the “I am Bradley Manning” fundraiser and web page, which literally thousands of people wrote I am Bradley Manning in front of them, took the photograph and uploaded that photograph to the web page.

They were able to organize marches, rallies, public events that kept Bradley Manning, and Bradley Manning’s name, in both the local and national news. And they were able to use social media effectively and put pressure on government representatives and, in fact, convince several to speak out on behalf of Brad, and then also, of course, as I said, the amount of fundraising, which is no small task to raise that much money and that was just through the trial.

The other thing Jeff did was even after the trial, continue to raise money now for Manning’s appeal, continue to raise public awareness about Manning. And now, of course, it went from Bradley Manning to Chelsea Manning and without skipping a beat they changed it from the Bradley Manning Support Network to the Chelsea Manning Support Network and continued to be advocates for Chelsea.

And when you really look at it, even though at the beginning the legal strategy that I was proposing, and that I actually used, and the PR strategy that Jeff wanted to use, did not mesh very well together — ultimately they actually did. And that’s because during the legal strategy the fact that Manning accepted responsibility for releasing information, acknowledged that she didn’t have the right to do so, and acknowledged that she, under the law, was required to keep that information secured and should have gone through the accepted channels to release that information.

While that legal strategy helped her avoid an aiding the enemy conviction, it didn’t result in a good outcome from a sentence standpoint for her. You know, she still got 35 years, which at the time I thought was outrageous, and I still do. But the good thing about it, when you look back on the entire time of the trial she never wavered in accepting responsibility, and her message never altered in as to why she did what she did, and that ultimately was what Jeff was able to use effectively to get people to volunteer, to get people to donate money, and to keep her name in the media and the public press, which I think, in my opinion, ultimately is why President Obama decided to commute her sentence.

Had our trial strategy been different, I don’t think it would have resulted in a lesser sentence from a judge. It probably would have been a harsher sentence, but I think it would have resulted in the president not granting the commutation. But I think because of our trial strategy, and then more importantly, because of Jeff’s efforts outside of the courtroom in positively portraying Manning, the message that was put out was that this is not the type of person that deserve 35 years.

And ultimately, even though a judge was not convinced of that, a president of the United States was. If not for the efforts of Jeff Paterson and the Manning Support Network and Courage to Resist, there’s no way that a president would spend the political capital to grant a commutation.

So really, it’s interesting now with looking at this in 2017, with hindsight, even though our legal strategy and PR strategy was not initially compatible, ultimately the differences are what made the outcome possible, and fortunately for Chelsea come May 17th she’ll walk out of a prison a free woman.

Eric: I asked David Coombs, Chelsea Manning’s civilian defense lawyer, why he held the opinion that President Obama ultimately chose to commute Manning’s sentence because of the successful efforts of the Chelsea Manning Support Network.

David: At the time that Obama granted the commutation, obviously, it wasn’t a popular move with Republicans, or a popular move necessarily with members within his own party. But one of the things that was put out by his press office was essentially, look, Chelsea Manning is different than others who have released information in recent years in that she accepted responsibility, was clear that her motivations were not to harm the United States, but to actually share information with the public.

And that message, that constant message that worked against what some conservatives were trying to spin, that she was an anarchist, or that she was anti-war, or perhaps wanted to harm our effort. The fact that the message that we put out was always clear as to why she did what she did and her motivations that gave the president the ability, I think, to say that 35 years was too long for this type of person given the nature of the offense, the offender and her acceptance of responsibility. And the fact that even after the court marshal, through the efforts of the Support Network, we were able to keep Bradley Manning’s name relevant, rather that be through articles that she wrote or efforts to ensure that she received adequate medical care.

The fact that this was a constant PR push to keep Manning’s name in the forefront, I think is what enabled her to get the commutation. If it weren’t for the Support Network you would have people who would simply forget and move on to other issues, and at the time, if that happened, the motivation for a president then to grant a commutation to somebody who there really isn’t any support for, wouldn’t be very high. So that’s why it’s my firm belief that Jeff Paterson, the Support Network, really deserves the lion share of the credit for that outcome.

And, you know, I’d like to add throughout all this – through the last essential seven years where Jeff Paterson has devoted a large portion of his time to Chelsea Manning he went through a lot of difficult times in his own personal life. I know in one month, which was the towards the end of the motions hearing, right before the beginning of the actual trial, we were in a funding crunch, essentially, the length of the trial, the amount of the motions hearings, we did not anticipate would be as much as it was and, obviously, when you have travel expenses those have to be paid.

And it got to the point where we were very low on funding, and Jeff, even at that point, didn’t flinch – indicated that, look, if need be we’ll take out a loan in order to cover the funding. We want to make sure that there’s absolutely no disruption in the defense of then Bradley Manning. And during this time period I became aware, obviously, through our interaction that he was doing this even under a lot of personal pressures.

He lost his mother during that very same month, that a lot of these issues were happening, his wife gave birth to a child, so, you know, in the same month a very happy event and, obviously, a very sad event. And yet despite the many things that were rightfully tugging at his attention he still didn’t flinch in his ongoing support and staying on top of all of the issues in order to ensure that we got the needed funding to continue our defense.

And really that was one of the things that – it seemed, as we were doing these motions hearings, that that was part of the government strategy of essentially wearing down the defense through constant motions or raising constant issues and essentially outspending us, but thanks to Jeff that never became an issue.

We were able to match the government stride for stride on everything that was happening in the courtroom, and the funding that we raised certainly enabled Chelsea to have the defense that she deserved and ultimately, again, I think is the reason why on May 17th Chelsea will be a free woman.

Eric: Here is where I tried one last time to invite Chelsea Manning’s civilian defense attorney, David Coombs, to put the case that he had worked so hard on into a larger perspective on the eve of Chelsea’s freedom from military prison.

His answer was essentially that we need whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning, in the US, just as much now as ever before.

David: Looking back on the seven years, really, since being a part of this case, it is mind-boggling to think how many hours were put into this case. The amount of motions, the amount of discovery, really over a million pages basically of discovery looked at through the trial. The number of hours spent on this case undoubtedly aged me a few years, just from working the case.

And it’s hard to understand or appreciate this even now, because I look back – I save everything, so I’ve got all my emails from this time period, I have, of course all the evidence that’s unclassified, and many of my notes from things that I did, the motions hearings or witness interviews, as I look through that I’m reminded of, just for a moment, how I was feeling at the time.

And it’s one of those things where I don’t think you can really put into words what it all means. I just know that it was one of the most important cases, I think, in our time for freedom of the press. I think it still hasn’t been worked out as to how this will impact the way we view classified evidence and over-classification, the problem with that, with our government making more and more secret at a time in which transparency is important for not only legitimacy of what we do as the United States, but from the standpoint of who we elect, and how we expect those that we have elected to perform their job.

Many of the issues that were so important at that time are kind of in today’s headlines as well – transparency within our government, understanding the motivations of our political leaders and who they may or may not owe favors to. That type of openness and transparency was needed in 2010 and is needed today.

And I think our case really, maybe 10, 15 years from now, will be looked at as the case of what do you do with people who share information to non-traditional media, that I think becomes a more and more important outlet for news stories, so WikiLeaks, while most people had not heard of WikiLeaks before the Manning case certainly now know WikiLeaks very well and the question becomes are they a news organization. I think the answer has to be yes and are they the type of organization that we should be prosecuting for publishing information that’s shared with them if it’s classified.

And right now I think those in control would say yes to that, and I think ultimately we’ll get to the correct answer and that would be no – that there’s no difference between WikiLeaks and the Washington Post or the New York Times – that when individuals release classified information, if we’re not going to deal with every release in the same manner and we’re just going to crack down on whistleblowers as opposed to individuals who, with the government’s permission, release information when it serves the government’s purposes then we kind of really have to relook the Espionage Act.

We really have to look at how we deal with people who release classified information, because it really then just becomes an effective took of the government to silence people, and it certainly impinges on our First Amendment rights and on the freedom of the press when you are now targeting people because you don’t like the message.

I mean, every day, and we see this in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, our government has leaks of information. Some of them are condoned – some of them are not, but the leaks of classified information from anonymous or so-called anonymous sources within the administration is usually done in order to influence a particular outcome.

And it seems like when those things happen there’s never a call for any sort of investigation into the leaks, or any condemnation of how the information could cause damage to the United States. It’s only when the source of the information is somebody who is not a favored releaser of information, that the government then deals with that harshly, and wants to crack down on the individual.

So, I think at some point in the future we’ll see that the Manning case, and Obama’s action of commenting the sentence, was a turning point in how we deal with individuals, or at least a starting point for discussion, of how we deal with individuals who release classified information for the public good.

I don’t think there’s ever been nor would there be a dispute on how we should deal with people who release information to harm the United States, who share information with individuals or governments that are enemies of the United States. I don’t think there’s really much dispute on that. The real question is what happens to people who share information with our media, or with a legitimate media outlet, for the public good.

And in those situations, I think, our government, for too long, has been quick to condemn those leaks and they’ve condemned them mostly because they’ve caused embarrassment, and if they’ve caused embarrassment or they’ve disclosed information that shows fraud, waste or abuse by our government, that is not a time in which we should be threatening somebody with the Espionage Act. That’s not a time that we should be seeking life with an “aiding the enemy” offense, and the death penalty, for somebody who released information.

I think, even though it’s difficult, even at this time, to really put the case into context. I think probably 10, 20 years from now it will be a case that people discuss when they also talk about the problem of over-classification and how we deal with individuals who, while, maybe not meeting the legal definition of a whistleblower, clearly were a whistleblower in the sense of wanting to get information to the public in order to inform the public, and the public debate, on a particular issue.

And hopefully we get to a point in which the government’s knee-jerk response when it causes embarrassment doesn’t result in a disproportionate sentence for an individual. And I think of people like Thomas Drake. I think of people like Daniel Ellsberg, who clearly, both, did not deserve the treatment that they received and time has over the years, certainly in Daniel Elsberg and I believe in Thomas Drake’s example would be true as well – time has reflected well on them and we now look at their actions as a positive thing – as a good thing.

And Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, will be viewed that way as well. Again, it may take 10, 20 years for that to happen, but it will and hopefully during that time period we will take a hard look at the amount of information that we classify and how we deal with releases of classified information.

And ultimately, we get back to the belief that has been said often and is true today as it was the first time it was uttered and that is sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that’s what makes our government strong, is the transparency.

Eric: I asked David Coombs to tell me about the first time he saw the video that Chelsea Manning had leaked, of the killing of 11 people, including a Reuter’s journalist and two children in Iraq.

David: That’s a very vivid memory for me, actually, because I was a criminal defense attorney with a state and federal practice, as well as a military practice. I was enjoying being a criminal defense attorney I, at that point, had started my practice roughly about a year before. I had gotten out of the military to start the practice, so I was 13-year active duty and then when I got out I decided to open a law firm specializing in criminal defense for military members, and in particular army soldiers.

And when I was home on a day when the video was released I remember seeing it on the news and my reaction, I think, was similar to most, and that was there’s something wrong here. This does not look like a good thing that we just did, especially when I found out that two of the individuals that were killed in that attack were reporters.

So, at that point I remember being troubled by it, and having an understanding why others might be troubled by it, but I didn’t know anything about the individual who released it, or even whether or not they were part of the military at that point.

Within a few days after that that was when I was initially contacted by Manning’s military counsel and he said, you know, we’d like to talk to you about possibly being retained as civilian counsel and gave me the link to that story on the Apache video as just background for the client that he represented. And that was the first time that I put two and two together between, you know, who released it and the fact that the government had actually identified the person.

And at that point I didn’t have any problem or concern representing the person because I could see why that video really should be disclosed. And I wouldn’t understand why it would be classified. And so, I think when I saw that initial video that really was for me an easy decision to say, yeah, I’d love to represent this person.

As the days went by and the weeks went by, every day it seemed like there was additional information and, again, greater embarrassment to the government and along with that greater outrage. So, as I said earlier, you know, when you look at the mountain and you don’t really appreciate how high it is, as you start to climb it, there’s probably a point during that first year that I was just praying there wasn’t anything more that was released. Because at that point we had the Department of Defense, we had the White House, Secretary of State, and quite a few diplomats from all over the world that were upset, so it was hard to imagine if there was anyone else in the government that we could have made upset at us.

Eric: At this point in our interview, near the conclusion of our time together, David Coombs wanted to again make sure that he work of Jeff Paterson, the work that Jeff did as a member of the Chelsea Manning Support Network, received the credit that David Coombs felt was due.

David: Really, the piece of the puzzle that has never really been exposed is the amount of work that Jeff did. And for me I can say that when we first started our exchanges he promised he would never do anything to hurt the case and would always respect anything that I said was not for public consumption and would share information that he received and just simply asked that I could share things with him that would help him do his job and he never violated that trust.

And I’ll tell you from, you know, early on we might have been unlikely friends, but by the end of the trial I consider him a good friend and throughout that time period, you know, his ability to effectively do what he was doing, and to manage all the people that were involved, and some who had desires that were totally contrary to a good outcome for Chelsea, you know, really wanting to push an agenda in spite of how it might impact Chelsea.

Jeff was always able to reign all those people in, keep them on point and to effectively run a mini corporation, essentially, and that is the funding and defense of Chelsea Manning. Nothing short of amazing.

Eric: That’s it for this episode of the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Eric Klein. Of course, my thanks to David Coombs for taking the time to share with us.

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