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Only a Few Reporters Have Bothered to Truly Confront Secrecy in Bradley Manning’s Court Martial

Courtroom sketch from Bradley Manning’s court martial (By Clark Stoeckley)

Just over one year ago, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent a letter to the military judge presiding over Pfc. Bradley Manning’s court martial that decried the “lack of openness” in proceedings. It condemned the fact that “documents and information filed in the case” were “not available to the public anywhere.” It complained about the failure to give the public proper “notice of issues to be litigated in the case.”

The US Army did not respond appropriately to the letter. The military court at Fort Meade rebuffed an attempt by a CCR attorney to make a statement on press and public access to proceedings on April 24. The same day the military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, issued a ruling that invoked Nixon v. Time Warner, a case involving press access to the Watergate tapes, to justify secrecy in the proceedings, and she said the Freedom of Information Act was available to the press if they wanted records. CCR filed a lawsuit in May about a month later (which I signed on to as a plaintiff).

David Carr, who covers media issues for the New York Times, has written a story on how reporters “covering the government’s prosecution” have “spent a year trying to pierce the veil of secrecy in what is supposed to be a public proceeding.” It recounts how “dockets of court activity, transcripts of the proceedings and orders” have been withheld. Then, last month, the United States Army launched a “Reading Room” and posted 84 of over 500 documents from the case so far. (Carr says “roughly 400 documents” which is incorrect, as 500 documents was widely reported).

Carr laments, “It has made for rugged going for the reporters who serve as the eyes and ears for the rest of us. They can show up at court, but without timely documents that are routinely available in most other legal cases, they cannot really do their jobs.” He goes on to add, “Coverage has been limited, partly by the court’s restrictions and partly because an increasingly stretched news media business often does not have the time, or the resources, to cover lengthy trials.”

For the Times, coverage has been limited because it was not until December 2012 that the newspaper started to regularly send reporters to cover the proceedings—a fact Carr does not bother to mention. When the Times has been present during proceedings, articles from reporters Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, who have covered the proceedings, have been often cited by blogs and other news sites and helped to ensure news of what happened is distributed widely. So, think about how much the public would know had the Times sent reporters to every hearing like Firedoglake has been doing since December 2011?

Carr spoke to The Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington for the story. Carr writes that Pilkington has “been attending the pretrial hearings since December 2011.” This is true. He has been coming to pretrial hearings since December 2011, but that statement is misleading. He has not attended nearly every single day of proceedings like independent journalist Alexa O’Brien, Courthouse News‘ Adam Klasfeld and this writer. He was present for Manning’s statement and guilty plea to the court on February 28 but did not stick around to cover argument over a Defense Department “operator,” who was part of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and who the government wants to call as a witness during the trial but refused to give the defense pretrial access to him to prepare for a cross-examination.

Pilkington covered the speedy trial motion ruling, the ruling on whether motive evidence could be raised during trial, how the government was citing a civil war case to argue Manning “aided the enemy,” the “unlawful pretrial punishment” ruling, Manning’s testimony on his confinement at the prison at Marine Corps Base Quantico, the prosecution claiming it had “evidence” Manning “aided the enemy” and the push for damage reports. Yet, a review of his articles shows he did not cover the final few days of testimony in December on Manning’s treatment at Quantico, how the government was withholding emails between Quantico officers from the defense, testimony from State Department witnesses in June 2012 and other stories from proceedings because he was not present.

That is not to say anything negative about Pilkington himself. His coverage has been good when he has been at proceedings. Rather, it is to point out that he is the reporter Carr went to for insight on what it has been like for reporters facing a lack of access to records, even though he is not one of the few who have attended just about every day of the court martial proceedings.

Carr did not contact this writer for comment for his story nor does it appear he contacted O’Brien, who could have given excellent insight because she has taken matters into her own hands and produced her own transcripts in order for the public to have a complete record of proceedings. He chose to rely solely on the insights of the most high-profile establishment news journalist, who has been there the most.

Notice, Pilkington works for an organization from the United Kingdom, not the United States, but Carr does not highlight how foreign press have been present while US media have been collectively absent.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."