By Adam Klasfeld – March 22, 2012
MANHATTAN (CN) – A lawyer from a civil libertarian group representing Wikileaks and Julian Assange urged a military judge to release records related to the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged source for the biggest leak in U.S. history.
“As the Manning court-martial purports to be a public trial, we cannot understand why critical aspects of the proceedings are being withheld from public view,” the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner wrote in a three-page letter released Thursday.
Manning has been held in pretrial detention since May 2010 on suspicion that he sent Wikileaks hundreds of thousands of files exposing global diplomatic cables, incident reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and footage of a July 12, 2007, Baghdad airstrike that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
Last December, Manning stepped into a court in Fort Meade, Md., for the first time in an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury.
The government has not released motions, rulings and transcripts of those and subsequent proceedings.
In a March 12 letter to Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson, more than 40 news organizations wrote that the government showed greater transparency with the cases of Guantanamo detainees than with that of Manning.
“As such, the coalition respectfully urges the government to implement similar reforms in its regulations governing court-martial proceedings generally and that of Manning specifically to ensure that military personnel tried stateside have the same rights to a public trial as those afforded accused terrorists,” the letter states.
Ratner, on behalf of Assange and Wikileaks, joined that effort on Thursday, in a letter to the presiding military judge, Col. Denise Lind, which he copied to the Pentagon.
The letter quoted 6th Circuit Judge Damon Keith’s grim warning, “Democracies die behind closed doors,” from an opinion in the case of Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, which forced immigration courts to open proceedings of defendants with suspected ties to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ratner said that it is difficult for even lawyers to follow the Manning court-martial without access to these records.
“For example, undersigned counsel attended the motions hearing on March 15, 2012, and determined that it was not possible to understand fully or adequately the issues being litigated because the motions and response thereto were not available,” he wrote.
Ratner appeared at several hearings in the Manning case to see how they might impact his client, Assange, who may already be named in a sealed federal indictment.
“Mr. Assange notably has a particular personal interest in this case because it appears that federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have obtained a sealed indictment against him concerning matters that, based on prior official statements, will likely be addressed in Pfc. Manning’s court-martial,” Ratner wrote.
Ironically, Assange found out about the possible existence of this indictment from emails between employees for the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, which Wikileaks recently made public.
The integrity of military law and constitutional law is also at stake, Ratner added.
“We do not understand how a court-martial proceeding can be deemed to comply with the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] or the Constitution unless its proceedings are accessible in a timely fashion,” he wrote. “The public and our clients must be given access to the legal filings when filed and prior to arguments before the court.”
Ratner also criticized Judge Lind’s decision at pretrial hearings last week to argue classification matters in her chambers, rather than in court.
“In addition, substantive legal matters were argued and decided in secret,” Ratner said in a statement. “It’s shocking that secrecy should be the order of the day in one of the most important cases of the last half-century.”
Courthouse News placed a Freedom of Information Act request on Feb. 23 requesting several rulings related to Manning’s Article 32 hearing. The FOIA office that received that request replied the same day that it had forwarded the request to U.S. Army Investigation Command.
On Thursday, a specialist from that office returned the second follow-up phone call about that request, which he said was never received. He added that the original recipient should have forwarded the original request to the U.S. Army Judiciary, and indicated that he had sent a renewed request there for processing.
Ratner’s letter seeks an order making such rulings publicly available without resorting to FOIA. He asked the judge to make such a ruling, or otherwise reply to his letter, by March 30.