New York Times Finally Covers Bradley Manning Proceedings (And Their Story Is Sloppy)

by Kevin Gosztola

Amidst growing criticism, including an editorial from the newspaper’s public editor, the New York Times sent reporter Scott Shane to cover military court proceedings in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier currently being prosecuted by the government for allegedly providing classified information to WikiLeaks.

Shane’s story, “In WikiLeaks Case, Defense Puts the Jailers on Trial,” is to be momentarily lauded because finally the “newspaper of record” showed up after nearly a year of proceedings to finally cover Manning’s case. However, as someone who has covered this closely, it is pretty sloppy.

Shane, who collaborated with Charlie Savage on the article, wrote:

…Mr. Coombs is hoping the court will at least give Private Manning extra credit against any ultimate sentence for the time he spent held under harsh conditions at Quantico and earlier in Kuwait, where he was kept in what he described as “an animal cage.”…

The defense is not seeking any relief for “unlawful pretrial punishment” that may have occurred in Kuwait. Though what Manning described from the witness stand sounded harsh and inhumane, after the government tried to bring a motion to have a prosecution witness testify on the conditions of Manning’s confinement in Kuwait, the defense made it clear they were not interested in challenging how the government treated Manning in Kuwait during the current hearing.

Shane and Savage incorrectly noted:

…As if to underscore the gravity of his legal predicament, Private Manning offered last month to plead guilty to lesser charges that could send him to prison for 16 years. Prosecutors have not said whether they are interested in such a deal, which would mean they would have to give up seeking a life sentence for the most serious charges: aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act…

That is not true, but Shane and Savage could not know it was not true because they have not been regularly attending the proceedings.

Prosecutors said on the first day of the “unlawful pretrial punishment hearing” that the United States government could not support Manning’s “conditional plea.” Furthermore, if they had consulted the website of Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, they may have described the plea accurately because Coombs stated a month ago:

…PFC Manning is not submitting a plea as part of an agreement or deal with the Government. Further, the Government does not need to agree to PFC Manning’s plea; the Court simply has to determine that the plea is legally permissible…

Shane apparently talked to a few Manning supporters and may have even spoken to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project. They both attended the proceedings on Friday when CWO2 Denise Barnes testified about the final months of Manning’s confinement at Quantico. However, he only was at the proceedings for the first couple hours and missed most of Coombs’ cross-examination that went over six hours and was not finished when the court finally went into recess.

What he wrote about Barnes’ testimony was the following:

Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes, who was in charge of the brig for the last four months of Private Manning’s time there, said that the soldier declined her many requests to describe his emotional state in detail. Because of some odd behavior and two previous statements he had made that flagged him as a suicide risk, she said she was unwilling to change his status — despite the advice of military psychiatrists — until he opened up to her about how he was feeling.

Over the months she spent with him, speaking briefly with him each day, he grew less communicative and more monosyllabic, Ms. Barnes said.

He did not clearly communicate to me, ‘I don’t want to kill myself,’ ” she said. “There was never an intent to punish Pfc. Manning.”

Ms. Barnes referred in passing to online attacks on her earlier this year by activists, one of whom called her a “sexual sadist.” She said she had no ill will against Private Manning “even though I was threatened and my family’s information was put out on the Internet.” [emphasis added]

Why didn’t Manning communicate with CWO2 Barnes and other officers in the Brig? Nobody would ever know from reading this article because the entire pie ce fails to mention how she was the commanding officer who made the improper decision to impose “special handling instructions” on Manning that forced him to sleep without his underwear from March 2, 2011, until he was transferred from Quantico to Leavenworth on April 20. (Shane & Savage would have been able to include material on this decision in their article if Shane had stayed for the full day of proceedings or if Savage had done a cursory Google search for information on CWO2 Barnes and Manning).

Shane mentioned that CWO2 Barnes brought up “online attacks.” He noted that one of those attacks had called her a “sexual sadist.” FDL editor-in-chief Jane Hamsher referred to her as a “sexual sadist” in a headline back in March 2011 right after the Brig started to take Manning’s underwear from him every night. There is no way anyone reading would know why this was said at the time because Shane and Savage do not mention any details on why she decided to deprive Manning of his underwear each night after March 2.

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Radack, in a post deconstructing the Times story, wrote, “After Barnes’ direct testimony, I heard Shane remark that ‘she seemed pretty credible.’ If he had attended the prior 8 days of the hearing, or had stuck around another 6 hours, he would have seen that ‘credibility’ shattered.”

She continued, “If Shane had bothered to stay for the next 6 hours, he would have seen a haughty low-rank Chief Warrant Officer with a chip on her shoulder (she was the most junior person to ever run a brig; if anything bad happened to Manning, it would ruin her career; etc.), who flouted prison regulations in favor of her own ‘personal opinion.’”

David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the Times, in an email to the Times public editor wrote, “We’ve covered him and will continue to do so. But as with any other legal case, we won’t cover every single proceeding.” They had not covered any of the proceedings since December 2011, when they sent a reporter to Fort Meade on the first day of his Article 32 hearing (when government made its case that the charges against him should be referred to a court martial).

Leonhardt continued, “Doing so would have involved multiple days of a reporter’s time, for a relatively straightforward story.” It is not straightforward. This is not just a simple case of whether an officer made a decision to mistreat Manning and now the defense is challenging it because that is what one would expect from counsel defending a soldier facing prosecution. Through emails, the defense uncovered correspondence from officials as high in the chain of command at the Marine Corp Headquarters who were in on minute decisions about how to handle Manning’s confinement. It was entirely extraordinary and they were involved in keeping him on prevention of injury status arbitrarily for a long period of time, which is also unheard of in military brigs.

The Washington bureau chief additionally stated, “The AP article recounting the main points of Mr. Manning’s testimony about his conditions of confinement that ran on page A3 of The Times conveyed fundamentally the same material as a staff story would have.”

It is clear the Times reporters and the AP would not necessarily report the same fundamental details. The AP story did not fail to mention Barnes’ role in deciding to take Manning’s underwear from him at night.

The Times benefited from publishing stories on information which Manning allegedly released. His confinement in Quantico, especially between January 2011 and April 2011, was when this case was generating the most amount of media attention. It was when the public was beginning to get to know the story of Bradley Manning. But if the Times does not wish to acknowledge this history and accurately and properly conduct responsible journalism, they should just keep farming out coverage to the AP.

At least the AP is there every day and has an awareness of the intricacies of the case. From the looks of this article, it is hard to tell what Shane or Savage actually know about the story they are trying to inform the American public about.

This article originally appeared on The Dissenter on December 8, 2012.

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