FORT MEADE, Md. — The court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the central figure in a massive leak of government documents, is focused on secrecy and government security. Yet his trial has become a secretive drama that allows the public little insight into what’s going on in the military courtroom.
One of the pretrial hearings was closed to the public. Many court documents have been withheld or heavily redacted. Photographers were blocked from getting a good shot of Manning, and even some of his supporters had to turn their T-shirts inside out.
Military law experts said some of it is common for a court-martial, while other restrictions appear tailored to the extraordinary nature of the case, which has garnered an outpouring of support from whistleblowers, activists and others around the world.
“I think the judge is very concerned about not turning this trial into a theater, into a spectacle,” said David Frakt, a military law expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a former military prosecutor and defense lawyer. “I cannot remember a situation where there was such a high degree of civilian interest, people not affiliated with the military, having intense and passionate interest in the outcome of the case.”
Manning is charged under federal espionage and computer fraud laws, but the most serious offense the military has accused him of is aiding the enemy, which carries a life sentence. His supporters call him a hero; opponents say he is a traitor for leaking the material to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The trial for the soldier from Crescent, Okla., began Monday under a barrage of heavy restrictions.
Manning supporters wearing “truth” T-shirts had to turn them inside out before entering the courtroom. The shirts were made by the Bradley Manning Support Network in early 2012 as an alternative to “Free Bradley Manning” T-shirts banned from early pretrial hearings, spokesman Nathan Fuller said.
The military allowed the shirts Tuesday. Army spokeswoman Michelle Roberts said the earlier decision was made “out of a concern for public safety and to remove a potential cause for disturbance among members of the public.” She said leaders assessed the situation and decided the shirts were OK.
Since the case began, reporters covering hearings have been asked to sign a document saying they would withhold the names of spokespeople on site, because the military said some people directly involved in the case had received death threats. The Associated Press signed the document to be allowed to cover the trial, but the news organization is protesting it.
Photographers looking to snap pictures of Manning Monday missed him leaving the courtroom because he was blocked by military police. On Tuesday, Manning was not surrounded.