By Rena Guay, Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild. September 30, 2013

Thanks to help from the Task Force, I was able to attend the first days of the Manning court-martial, and also attended the June 1 rally outside the main gate to Ft. Meade, which was organized by the Bradley Manning Support Network (now the Private Manning Support Network).

I wanted to witness the court-martial for myself and more clearly understand the case and the support campaign developed around it. MLTF executive director Kathy Gilberd reflects the general consensus among military law professionals (and progressive activists like me) that the Manning court-martial is “one of the most important cases in our military’s history.”

“It raises,” she observes, “critical issues about the moral and legal obligations of soldiers, and demonstrates the lengths to which the government will go to keep its military actions secret.”

I had to be there, even if only for five days.

As fascinatingly bizarre as the trial proceedings were and as admirable as the work of the legal team in the courtroom was, it was the staff and volunteers with the Support Network that most impressed and inspired me. (Likely this is due to not being a lawyer, but a long time organizer.)

This is the team behind the team, which for over three years has raised funds for legal fees, public education and publicity efforts, coordinated a massive and creative advocacy effort, made sure that reports of the case were made available to the public, despite the best attempts of the government to keep things secret, and generated awareness and action at countless panels, workshops and conferences within the wider peace/progressive movement.

Now that the court-martial is over, and as the needs for the future are being assessed and planned for, it’s worth taking time to consider – and praise — the stunning results this small organization achieved.

Initiated by Courage to Resist’s Jeff Paterson, himself a conscientious objector, the Support Network grew from CtR’s years-long struggle to help other COs. Eventually, the grassroots effort would grow to be an international powerhouse of commitment and energy. Events were coordinated across the globe, petitions drew huge support, videos featuring well-known names were produced, but it was the personal nature of much of the advocacy – photos asserting “I am Bradley Manning” became a viral meme on the Internet, and letter-writing to the imprisoned whistleblower with heartfelt greetings as to a dear friend – that gave the network its real key to making good on its mission to not let the world forget about an Army private who answered first to conscience, or allow the case to languish without legal representation fully invested in seeing justice for Manning.

All of this was done while fighting an almost overwhelming public narrative, fed by the media. “Our biggest challenge,” Paterson says, “was overcoming the mainstream media’s herculean efforts to avoid reporting on what this case was actually about—a soldier who shared classified documents with the world in order to expose wrongdoing, with the greater goal of ending war. Instead of accurately reporting on Manning as a young person who took bold action guided by conscience, without personal gain of any kind, Manning was painted as a crazed, gay, misfit soldier.”

Despite this, “we built a grassroots support network that introduced Manning to the world,” Paterson recalled with appropriate pride. “It’s important that folks learned that Manning was a whistle-blower in every sense of the term.”

The legal defense case was developed out of this understanding. “The government’s narrative from the very beginning was that Manning should be executed, but life in prison would be acceptable,” Paterson continued. “According to the government, Manning was a traitor and a spy, WikiLeaks was not a journalistic entity, and people were killed because of the leaks. Each of these allegations was disproven in the course of the court-martial, which led to our success in winning an acquittal on the ‘Aiding the Enemy’ charge.”

“We were always going to be the underdog in this fight, going up against the unlimited resources of the government, including the State Department, FBI, and NSA. I’m proud of the team we fielded both inside and outside the courtroom.”

The results can be seen in hard numbers: In a post-trial report, the Support Network said that over 23,246 individuals had donated a total of $1,440,840 to the defense fund, while an additional 825 supporters (including WikiLeaks) had given $64,164 to Pvt. Manning’s legal trust account (as of September 1, 2013). The most recent monthly fiscal report as of this writing can be found here.

When asked to reflect about the court-martial, how the government approached the trial, and what appeal efforts might involve, Jeff gave this thoughtful reply:

In my opinion, military justice usually has little to do with justice, and everything to do with discipline. Yet, we’ve “won” previous cases when the military pragmatically chooses to resolve objector cases—we  need to tip the scales in that direction with protest, favorable media, and first-rate legal support. However, in US v. Manning, the military was intent on not resolving this case short of “Espionage Act” related convictions, regardless of the costs. This trial was primarily about sending a clear message to any future military whistle-blower: Proceed only with unlimited courage, under the very real threat of unimaginable punishment. And military judge Col. Denise Lind was willing to go along with the government agenda, specifically when she upheld the “Aiding the Enemy” charge multiple times against compelling defense motions.

While Judge Lind and the government extracted a 35-year sentence from Manning, they did so with little concern for how things might look upon appeal–and that offers significant hope down the road. Lind allowed the prosecution to make significant changes to the charge sheet after the close of all arguments in order to match the evidence presented, after the fact. Lind bent over backward to void the 120-day speedy trial clock. And while Lind ruled that Manning was illegally subjected to pre-trial punishment, she only credited 112 days for 9 months of torturous treatment. Given that Manning’s sentence is nearly 13,000 days, those 112 days are insignificant. If that credit and/or sentence is allowed to stand, it tells the military that they have the green light to illegally abuse a service member in pre-trial confinement, as long as a long sentence is expected down the road.

The support campaign will carry on and will continue to support Pvt. Manning in all appeals going forward, including a bid for a Presidential Pardon, the clemency appeal to the Convening Authority, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, in the fall, and the case before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals next year. Manning will also have a clemency hearing in three years at Fort Leavenworth, and her first parole hearing in a little over seven years. Awareness and advocacy work will continue, and likely grow.

Now Paterson looks ahead: “While the support network’s efforts will remain focused on why Manning is now a political prisoner, and how to free her without delay, we will also be expanding our work to encompass Manning’s health care needs at Fort Leavenworth — specifically that she be given access to hormone therapy appropriate for a trans woman,” Patterson said. “There is favorable case law in the courts covering federal prisons, so this will be an interesting fight to force the military to do the right thing and provide that medically accepted therapy to a trans soldier.”

An “interesting fight” it has been, and will continue to be. Stay tuned.