WASHINGTON — December 3rd Bradley Manning Attorney and Army Reservist spoke to a congregation near Mt. Pleasant, District of Columbia. He spoke for almost 90 minutes, part of which included a question period in which he answered questions from the press feed to him by members of the Bradley Manning Support Network, a group that has collected legal fees for the private suspected of leaking thousands of pages of data documenting war crimes, innocuous activity, the overclassification of information. Some call the Army Private a traitor; others, including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, have called him a whistleblower.
“He told me that his dream would be to go to college to get a degree. And as a young man at that time he was 23. That makes sense. We all know that college degrees are pretty much the ticket to a productive future.” The Unitarian Church is notable for being one of the most educated denominations in the country, and certainly this line resonated well with attendees.
While Mr. Coombs told the crowd that he did not want to try Private Manning’s case with the public, whether or not he believes that the immense public pressure surrounding the case — especially since the diminutive former, now demoted, specialist no longer leaves in doubt his being the source of the WikiLeaks data that sparked global revolutions — was and will be key to shining attention on his mistreatment at the hands of the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, where he was held and Judge Lind has ruled that he was mistreated. As though Mark Antony describing Caesar as an “honorable man,” Mr. Coombs said, “As I said to begin with, this public appearance is the exception for me. I believe that trying the case is not the way to representation of a client,” despite the public’s opinion certainly having an a heavy influence on the inevitable sentencing of the private. Mr. Coombs continued, “And Brad — at least from what he testified in the open hearing — didn’t want his case to be tried in the press, either. And also because that was his wishes early on but also because my perspective is you shouldn’t try your case in the press — I respected his wishes and didn’t grant issues. And even after this day I won’t be granting interviews. And the reason why, again, is because your focus has to be on your client and not on, you know, basically putting out facts to spin something your way in the press when that doesn’t achieve anything in the courtroom. When you’re in the courtroom, that’s what matters. What happens there matters. In the press, as I said here today, what really matters is you, the public, being involved and being informed and that the press can do wonderful things. That’s why I’m happy to see them here today. And that’s what really resulted in Brad being moved, in my opinion, from Quantico, to Fort Leavenworth.”
Next was The Internet Chronicle’s question (answered at 01:20:00 in the file below this article), which was based on concerns we had from the trial, in which Private Manning had complained about his jailers listening in on his phone call: “Are you and your client able to communicate freely on a privileged basis.”
Replied Mr. Coombs to The Internet Chronicle’s question, “Yes, Brad and I speak at least once a week, if not more, and we — obviously we see each other quite often as well. Our communications are always privileged. They’re never subject to any sort of recording or being monitored by anyone. And so because of that I act basically as kind of the conduit for Brad, giving him information and helping him stay in touch and informed. So those communications are not subject to monitoring.”
While attending the pre-trial in May, this reporter engaged in a conversation with a military police officer — last name “Parker” — who volunteered his view that protesters outside of Fort Meade, where the private’s trial was being held, in fact disliked the military. Asked if Lt. Dan Choi, a high-profile anti-“don’t ask, don’t tell” activist, also disliked the military, the MP still expressed skepticism. This is exactly the dynamic that drives Mr. Coombs to speak in public, despite his
Said Mr. Coombs, “I asked Brad: ‘Well, with that degree what do you plan on doing?’ And he said, ‘I want to go into pubic service.’ And I asked him what he meant by that. And he said, ‘I want to join some sort of campaign group, go into public service and perhaps one day run for public office.’”
That statement by the attorney was met by gentle murmurings.
Mr. Coombs continued with: “And I asked Brad, why would he want to do that. And he said, ‘I want to make a difference. I want to make a difference in this world.’”
“I can tell you that standing here today I hope that someday soon Brad can go to college. I hope someday soon he can in fact go into public service. But I am confident, as I stand here today, that Brad doesn’t have to worry about making a difference in this world. He has made a difference.” With that line, Mr. Coombs was greeted with steady applause by all in attendance except the press.
Of the two questions that The Internet Chronicle submitted on note cards to Nathan Fuller, this was perhaps the best answer to the other question staff had for Mr. Coombs, which we would later pose to leadership of the Center for Constitutional Rights: “Was there a net positive value in Private Manning have orchestrated the large leak of classified information in military history?”
Speaking to The Internet Chronicle, Michael Ratner, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “Assuming [Private] Manning leaked it, there’s no doubt that he has exposed material that has been very important for both ending wars, end the hypocrisy of our government, and ending the corruption. I mean, it consider it to be no issue about it.” Mr. Ratner added, “What we have is a government of incredible secrecy that’s getting more secret. And unless you have people starting to expose material, we are facing a situation of a total surveillance state. And these guys are heroes, in my view, for what they’ve done.”
Asked if there were any negative consequences of leaking, even if they were outweighed by positives, Mr. Ratner told this reporter, “The government hasn’t come up with any that are negative in the sense of hurting anybody. What they’ve said is, yeah, they can’t do their diplomatic stuff in the same way and all that, but I don’t consider that a negative.”
Despite criticism from press, such as the highly intrepid Alexa O’Brien (@carwinb), who when we attended the trial, complained about lack of access and documentation, Defense Counsel Coombs said that the military justice system was the best place for Private Manning to be in and even said that it was more just than the civilian court system. He called it “the best courtroom you can go into.”
Speaking from the podium that evening to about 50 members of the public, “When you look at it from the outside, you could see and perhaps think that the system is built to obtain a certain outcome. I can tell you with confidence — again, having practiced both in state and federal and in military practice — that a court-martial is by far the fairest, justest system that I’ve ever practiced in. And that may sound confusing. And I actually get some looks of — I don’t — I don’t know about that.”
With that line, there was chuckling from the audience. The congregation, which I have attended, in which my own son was dedicated, I have noticed to be skeptical of military activities. Two years ago I attended a morning session in which an activist spoke of disassembling the entire nuclear weapons infrastructure in the United States to acclaim, to agreement and to accord.
“But let me tell you why,” said Mr. Coombs. “Military judges are not just picked out at random. They’re not voted in. A military judge is somebody who has done in most instances both federal — excuse me — acted as a prosecutor and as a defense counsel for a period of times, has seen both sides.
“Also that person usually has taken on the role of a chief of military justice, which would be the equivalent of a DA; or a senior defense counsel. And so from that perspective you have a lot of experience, plus once the judge becomes a judge usually that person is a lieutenant colonel or a colonel. People who go that route are not interested in becoming generals. And so you’ve kind of tapped out at the top of where you would want to be. So there is no influence issue. And you have somebody there that is truly experienced, who truly understands the law. And from my perspective I would take a judge who knows the law and is very experienced over many of the judges I’ve practiced in state and federal.
“And then from a panel standpoint, if you go with a panel, almost everybody in the military — once they have obtained a certain rank — has some sort of college degree.”
And here once again, Mr. Coombs was making an appeal to the members of the audience.
He said, “And I think that in and of itself speaks volumes about the person’s ability to at least have an open mind on certain topics.”
Since the date of this speaking engagement, the trial continues to be pushed back — court officials blaming the delay, as did Mr. Coombs, on “further defense motions.”
Nonsense at the beginning — Complete Internet Chronicle audio of the David Coombs speech on Manning, hosted via SoundCloud (Ratner begins at 35:00) while Coombs’ first public presentation begins at (51:00):