August 22, 2013

Bradley Manning's Lawyer on the Unfairness, and Dignity, We Weren't Allowed to See

Fort Meade, Maryland: Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years and dishonorably discharged for leaking secret government documents. Shawn Thew/European Pressphoto Agency

After Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking documents to Wikileaks and the world, his lawyer David Coombs said that the prohibition of cameras in the courtroom had hurt their case: “A lot of stuff that happened would not have happened, because the American public would see it and say, ‘that’s not fair.'”

Coombs thus addresses the visual narrative of Bradley Manning’s story and case directly. Like with Edward Snowden’s adventures, but for very different reasons, images of Bradley Manning are relatively few and far between, limited to the brief opportunities before or after the actual court sessions. Always, he’s seen handcuffed or restrained, and at 5’ 2” tall, overshadowed and overwhelmed by his beefy military guards.

In these ways, Manning’s appearance seems to confirm exactly what his biography might suggest: a confused, alienated young man with a difficult family background and uncertain sexuality. Pitiful. Pathetic. Easily manipulated. Smart enough to do what he did but not wise enough to have not.  There have not been enough images to suggest otherwise.

Courtroom sketch of the reaction after the judge, Col. Denise R. Lind of the Army, issued her sentence.

“Myself and others were in tears, because this means a lot to us. And, so, you get this guy [Manning] and he looks to me and he says, ‘It’s OK. It’s alright. Don’t worry about it; it’s alright. I know you did your best. It’s going to be OK and I’m going to be OK. I’m going to get through this.’”

That’s how Coombs described what was clearly not only a personal but also historic moment that all the participants understood as such. Manning, against the stereotype of him as diminutive and weak, behaved with dignity and grace under enormous pressure. Coombs was moved and impressed, and wants us all to be as well.

Yet the only views of the proceedings are by the courtroom sketch artists. The drawing shows that taut emotion with atmospheric and aesthetic qualities. But photographs and videos would have been on the air and front pages everywhere, immediately.

Coombs interviewed by Alexa O’Brien on Democracy Now after the trial.

David Coombs, in contrast to many of his client’s supporters, doesn’t look like a peace activist, doesn’t look like Julian Assange! In fact, nobody would have been surprised had he been the prosecutor rather than defense counsel. He resembles a tough paratrooper become politician or official, with shaved head and crisp suit. Because – that is what he is – a JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyer in the Army Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel and Iraq War veteran. He was a judicial adviser rebuilding Iraq’s justice system during the American occupation. Anti-war critics could easily claim that he was a part of the problem in that role, considering that Iraq has hardly become the paradigm for liberal democracy and civil society that the Bush Administration promised.

Screenshot of Coombs’ homepage at

Like some of the military lawyers at Guantanamo, Coombs is an insider who found himself doing more than the minimum. All defense attorneys are obligated to do the utmost for their clients, even when they are accused of horrific crimes of murder. Coombs previously represented Sergeant Hasan Karim Akbar, who was convicted of fragging and killing two officers during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But in cases involving the debate over a larger definition of national security and what’s truly in the national interest, what’s fascinating is how some of the system’s own best and brightest emerge as unlikely dissenters and critics. Coombs draws upon a shared visual vocabulary of patriotism and military strength on his website to assert that due process, fair trials and advocacy are every bit as important as the government’s unprecedented aggressive enforcement efforts.

It’s been pointed out by many that even if Bradley Manning is released on parole in seven years, he will still have been imprisoned for a total of ten by then. If he ends up serving anything near the full 35 years, that’s almost a life sentence – for crimes that the government was unable to prove actually and directly hurt anyone. Set against the greater good that was served by facilitating a far more transparent and honest assessment of the Global War on Terror, that’s a far harsher penalty than any other military or intelligence whistleblower in American history.

–Alan Chin

Note: Manning’s announcement of a change in gender identity, to be identified as Chelsea Manning, and her preference for the use of feminine pronouns, came as breaking news while this article was written.

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Alan Chin
See other posts by Alan here.

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