FORT MEADE, Md. — After seven days of testimony and the submission of more than 300,000 pages of documents, a key question remains unanswered in the case against Army Pfc. Bradley Manning:
How exactly did his leak of hundreds of thousands of secret documents, logs and at least one video — which he passed to WikiLeaks — directly harm U.S. national security?
It's a near-certainty that Manning, whose pretrial Article 32 hearing concluded Thursday, will next face a court-martial, but experts say that it's unclear whether the government will be able to prove its most serious charge against the former Army intelligence analyst — that he aided the enemy. A conviction on that charge could send Manning, 24, to prison for life.
"Whether or not he did (illegally download and distribute classified documents) is a factual thing. Whether he undermined national security is a judgment thing," explained John Hutson, a former military judge advocate.
Prosecutors at the Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of an evidentiary hearing — only had to show a "reasonable belief" that Manning committed a crime; if the case proceeds to a court martial, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.
In a court martial, "all the defense has to do is raise doubt," Hutson said. "The burden is on the prosecution."
Manning's case may hinge on the question of what constitutes harming national security — which the government charges that Manning did when he entered a classified computer, downloaded thousands of files, burned them onto a CD and provided them to WikiLeaks over his personal computer while deployed as an intelligence analyst in Iraq.
Nearly two years after Manning's arrest — and more than a year after WikiLeaks published State Department cables, military logs and a video of soldiers shooting at civilians who were initially thought to be insurgents in Baghdad — the answer is unclear. Manning remains a polarizing figure, a hero to some and traitor to others.
At worst, supporters argued, he embarrassed the United States.
As both sides gave closing arguments Thursday, the government presented no evidence of a death, injury or harm done to the United States that was caused by the release of the information. Instead, military prosecutors argued that Manning knew that what he was doing was illegal and could help America's enemies, which they specified as terrorist organizations.
Manning "had actual knowledge that ... foreign adversaries like al Qaida and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula would use WikiLeaks to their advantage," prosecutor Army Capt. Ashden Fein said.
The prosecution showed an al Qaida video encouraging members to seek information about U.S. activities from places like WikiLeaks. It also referred to an article in al Qaida's Inspire magazine — produced by the terror group's propaganda arm — which referred to the leaks.
And they presented numerous statements Manning signed during his training that showed he knew the risk to U.S. national security of releasing classified information.
The defense argued that the harm to the United States was negligible. "I think the defense and Manning's supporters are saying, Show me the name of one person who has died,' and the government can't do that," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
But "intelligence is anything that provides insight into the planning and conduct of enemy military operations. If we had the Taliban equivalent of this, it would be gold. The precise nature of that damage and the exact description of the advantage the Taliban gained has not been described but it's surprising that it would not be useful."
The prosecution alleged that Manning was a trained and trusted analyst who was supposed to be working in Baghdad as an expert on Shiite Muslims but instead spent the bulk of his time searching for files that WikiLeaks sought. Manning, the prosecutor alleged, copied documents from the classified system onto a CD and then passed them to WikiLeaks using his personal computer.
Often he searched for documents that WikiLeaks had publicly appealed for, like the email addresses of personnel stationed in Iraq.
Faced with overwhelming electronic evidence, the defense didn't dispute that Manning downloaded the documents. The prosecution had logs of his activity on the military's classified system and chats with an informant in which he confessed to downloading the documents.
Some of the most compelling evidence presented by the prosecution included chats in which Manning allegedly communicated directly with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who is facing charges from the Justice Department.
In chats presented Thursday, Manning, using the alias "Nobody," was shown chatting with "Nathaniel Frank," or Assange. As he uploaded documents about detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Manning wrote on March 8, 2010:
"I'm throwing everything I've got on JTF-GTMO... at you now."
"should take a while to get up though," he added.
"ok, great," Assange replied.
"Up load is about 36 pct," Manning then writes.
"ETA?" Assange asked.
"11 to 12 hours, guessing since it's been going 6 already," Manning replied.
Manning faces 22 charges, and the prosecution argued that every breach encroached on national security — from the video of U.S. troops shooting the suspected insurgents in Baghdad who turned out to be employees with the Reuters news agency, to logs of military incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, in other chats, Manning said he reached out to WikiLeaks not to aid a foreign enemy but because he felt the public should know.
In a May 2010 chat with former hacker Adrian Lamo — whose disclosure to authorities led to Manning's arrest — Manning writes that he wasn't seeking financial gain: "i mean what if i were someone more malicious ...i could've sold to russia or china, and made bank?"
In addition to asserting there was no real damage done to U.S. security, the defense argued that Manning was a troubled man struggling with gender-identity issues, that the command structure in his unit failed him and that the information should not have been classified.
"During the deployment, he created a virtual identity," his attorney David Coombs told a hushed courtroom. "He struggled in isolation but he did not struggle in silence."
The defense asked that the 22 charges against Manning be combined into three that carry a maximum of 30 years: federal larceny, releasing information that could harm the United States and exceeding unauthorized access and relaying that information.
The investigating officer, who serves as both a judge and jury in the military system, is expected to recommend by Jan. 16 whether Manning should face a court martial.