Through a peculiar legal maneuver known as “pleading by exceptions and substitutions,” Army Pvt. Bradley Manning has for the first time explicitly acknowledged that he was responsible for leaking classified material that appeared on the Wikileaks website.
In a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, Manning offered to plead guilty to some of the lesser charges against him, “indicating he would accept general responsibility for providing information to WikiLeaks,” according to blogger Kevin Gosztola.
The plea does not involve the most serious charges, such as aiding the enemy, which could result in Manning spending his life in a military prison. By opting not to seek the death penalty in the Manning case earlier this year, the government left the door open to a possible plea deal, but this week’s plea offer came unilaterally from the Manning legal team.
Nothing is set to change in terms of the serious charges Manning will face at his court martial in February, so what does it all mean?
Many legal analysts are puzzled as to why the Manning team would unilaterally concede these lesser charges, with no promise of any reward for their concession.
The plea is notable for being the first time the defense has openly acknowledged Manning did, in fact, leak classified material to Wikileaks, though, they had implied as much during earlier pre-trial hearings.
If accepted by the judge, the plea could streamline the court martial. This would allow the court to leapfrog the details of the leaking itself, and jump right to arguments over whether the charges against Manning are justified, based on the material leaked, and the damage the leaking caused.
In pre-trial hearings last year, the prosecution spent much time detailing evidence that Manning was the leaker, which Manning’s lawyers never sought to contest.
They instead pointed out lax security and suggesting Manning should never have had access to the classified information. Lawyer David Coombs also implied that the damage caused by the leaks was minimal and outweighed by the public interest in their exposure.
It is obvious now that the defense will take a similar tack in the upcoming court martial and hopes to convince the court that Manning’s leaks did not rise to the level of “aiding the enemy.”
Even if they fail on that point, the same argument could be revived to argue for a more lenient sentence.
Manning’s eventual sentence could also be reduced if claims of “unlawful pretrial punishment”—i.e., Manning’s alleged ill-treatment in military prisons— are found to have merit.
Manning’s legal team also announced this week their decision to have the case decided by military judge, rather than a jury of fellow soldiers.