WASHINGTON – The US Army has launched a wide-ranging investigation into how a private suspected of downloading thousands of secret reports and diplomatic cables and handing them over to WikiLeaks was able to do so and whether other soldiers should face criminal charges in the case.
An army official familiar with the investigation told McClatchy newspapers that the six-member task force has been given until February 1 to complete a report that will look at everything from how Private Bradley Manning was selected for his job and trained to whether his superiors missed warning signs that he was downloading documents he had no need to read.
The army confirmed the investigation, but wouldn’t release details.
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The report could change how the army – the largest distributor of government security clearances – grants access to government documents as well as lead to recommendations of charges against soldiers who worked with Manning and may have been aware of his activities.
Manning was working as an intelligence specialist in Baghdad during 2009 and the early months of 2010 when he allegedly downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Those documents reached WikiLeaks – army officials have said they’re not certain how – and have been published by the website in four separate bursts that began in April with the release of a video showing an army helicopter firing on civilians in Baghdad, killing two Reuters news agency employees.
The website also released tens of thousands of documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before the current, ongoing publication of hundreds of thousands of US State Department cables, which began on November 28.
Manning allegedly downloaded the documents while pretending to listen to music by Lady Gaga on headphones, a cover story, investigators say, to explain the sound of the computer’s CD drive whirring as he copied the files.
He’s being held in solitary confinement at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia on charges that could lead to a 52-year prison sentence.
Some human rights groups charge that Manning is being mistreated, with no ability to exercise or access to news.
The Defense Department has denied the claims.
Army Lieutenant General Robert Caslen Jr, the commander of the Army General Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, will lead the study, which was ordered by John McHugh, the Army secretary.
“Lt Gen Caslen has a very broad investigative mandate and he has been assured of the co-operation of both the Department of the Army and the US Central Command as he proceeds. Lt Gen Caslen’s investigation will not interfere nor conflict with the ongoing criminal investigation,” Army spokesman Lt Col Christopher Garver said in a statement prepared in response to questions from McClatchy.
No other service branch is conducting a similar investigation, but the army findings could lead to changes throughout the military. With more than 800,000 uniformed personnel, the Army issues more security clearances than any other government organisation.
The US Justice Department also is conducting an investigation into whether to bring charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, though such a prosecution faces a number of challenges, including the apparent difficulty prosecutors are having tying Assange directly to Manning.
Manning, now 23, reportedly isn’t co-operating with investigators, and Defense Department officials who have been briefed on the case said according to their most recent information, now months old, that no direct tie has been established between Manning and Assange.