Brief Thoughts on the Experience of Covering Bradley Manning’s Court Martial

What an incredible life experience it has been covering Pfc. Bradley Manning’s court martial.

While one could say I was only doing my job as a journalist and it is no big deal that I just spent the last year and a half regularly traveling to Fort Meade in Maryland to cover proceedings, it is also true that I could have covered this court martial regularly from Chicago, where I am based. I did not have to commit to spending an entire summer living in Washington, DC, so I could cover the trial.

Also, being young, I consider covering Manning’s court martial in its entirety to be one of the first major accomplishments as a journalist. It has introduced me to what it is like to be in a press pool each morning, where one gets to know others working for various media organizations.

It has given me the opportunity to meet multiple whistleblowers and become familiar with their stories. It has also raised my profile, as there have been numerous opportunities to talk on the few radio and Internet television programs that have been giving the case regular attention.

I have spent most of my time interacting with the core group of individuals, like myself, who have been coming here just about every day: independent journalist Alexa O’Brien, Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld, Bradley Manning Support Network reporter Nathan Fuller and Associated Press reporter David Dishneau. Throughout the entire court martial, they have been willing to clarify details or, in some cases, help me work through ideas or opinions I may want to present about what was transpiring.

The core group of reporters that have been here everyday providing the actual reporting that has informed much of the world’s understanding of this case have believed, to some extent, that this is one of the most significant military justice cases in the history of the United States. We’ve talked at length about the finer details of the case and what was important, only to leave each day and realize how little attention it has received in this country from US press that should have been generating much more interest through coverage.

Neither Fuller, Klasfeld, O’Brien or I live in the area nearby Fort Meade. We don’t live in Washington, DC, either, but I presume there are at least 1,000 established and up-and-coming journalists who live in the area that could have been covering the court martial had they found to be as newsworthy as we all did.

I have been exposed to the controlled atmosphere the military will impose on press covering military court proceedings. I witnessed how the rules have become more punitive and restrictive, as each day has passed. While there were leaks of audio and video that led to increased restrictions, some of the rules or procedures in place do not have a reasonable security purpose.

A clear tension between a security regime and supposed principles of freedom of the press has been readily apparent throughout the court martial. The absurd and impractical nature of security has sometimes gotten in the way of my ability to do my job, but I have also learned I cannot allow it to get in the way of doing what I need to do first and foremost and that is report on the court proceedings I came to cover that day.

Furthermore, some members of the press supported a Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit for access to court records because they were not being made available. That also complicated the ability of press to report on the court martial. However, we persevered and individuals like O’Brien excelled by using her own personal website to create a public record of the trial because the military refused to make records public. She set to work doing transcripts of hearings, which the military would not provide. (Note: The lawsuit did not succeed in leading to a First Amendment ruling that required the military to make court martial records available to press, but it did have the effect of forcing the military to make all prior pretrial documents public and trial documents public as the trial unfolded.)

When the trial began in June, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald began to publish information on top secret surveillance programs, which he had obtained from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. News around the Associated Press having their phone records seized by the Justice Department for a leak investigation made headlines. That another leak investigation had labeled a Fox News reporter James Rosen an “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” in the leak also generated news.

That set an appropriate backdrop for the trial and showed the administration of President Barack Obama’s crackdown on leaks was not just a war on whistleblowers but also a war on journalism. It was all a part of an aggressive campaign to maintain control of information and deter others from challenging that control by making decisions to release information the government still wanted to keep secret, even if it showed clear instances of abuse, fraud, misconduct and other crimes.

With the sentence set to be announced tomorrow, Greenwald and Snowden are still in the news because Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was held in detention for nine hours at Heathrow Airport for having a relationship with a journalist engaged in reporting on surveillance the British government would like to shut down. They want so badly to shut him down that they even sent agents from the country’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, to oversee the smashing of hard drives at The Guardian’s office.

I have made the connections and placed the case in a larger context, it is sometimes hard to tell if others who have been with the press pool are willing to place the case into the larger context. They either do not believe Manning’s case is connected to all that is happening now or the culture that influences them within traditional media constrains them from presenting a proper assessment of the reality of the situation. So, regardless of whether it is in the press’ self-interest to be aggressively reporting on these developments around national security leaks and the pursuit of alleged leakers, a level of self-censorship takes place.

Firedoglake has had a unique ability to cover this court martial that, perhaps, other media organizations possibly do not have because we are not beholden to a news cycle. We give our organization the freedom to specialize and commit to a journalism project that intensely covers all angles of a story, if it is worthy of close attention.

The model adopted for covering the court martial is one that I hope to build off and continue in the future, as I continue to cover the general issues of whistleblowing, secrecy, leaks and press freedom, which were central to the Manning court martial in many ways.

As cases come along that implicate the rights of whistleblowers and journalists, I will consider whether to give those cases the focus that I gave to Manning. If a case deserves close attention, I will do my duty as a journalist, go to where I need to be to properly report the story and work to generate interest among people who read my work and citizens around the world, who should be informed of what is happening.

Finally, I will never forget the outpouring of support I received for my work throughout the trial—from not just colleagues and readers but from the crew at Firedoglake, who dedicated hours of time and resources to ensure I was able to do what I set out to do each day. Everyone who was there to help me grow as a journalist deserves thanks and gratitude.

Special thanks to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which gave me a grant to help cover expenses from covering the trial. FPF also crowd-funded stenographers for the trial so there could be transcripts of the trial available to the press and public. All transcripts can be found here.


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