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Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., on May 21, 2013, before a pretrial military hearing (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Prominent Journalists File Suit to Lift Veil of Secrecy Over Manning Trial

Last chance to free case from heavy-handed military censorship, say critics of proceedings

Jacob Chamberlain

A group of prominent journalists has called on the military judge presiding over the upcoming trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning to do away with the extreme secrecy that has so-far shrouded the prosecution of the US Army whistleblower.

In a complaint filed in a federal district court Wednesday by the Center of Constitutional Rights—along with journalists Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Kevin Gosztola, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange, and Chase Madar—the group of plaintiffs motioned for a preliminary injunction that would compel the judge to "grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings." To date, none of these have been made available to the public.

“Secret trials are commonplace in dictatorships, but have no place in this country." said co-plaintiff Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. "The Obama administration conducts unconstitutional dragnet surveillance of journalists to uncover protected sources, and targets whistleblowers with unprecedented use of the espionage act."

"Access to court documents and proceedings in the court martial of Bradley Manning is vital to the public's right to know to what lengths their government will go to keep secret their conduct of wars and occupations abroad,” she added.

As it stands now a military judge can close a courtroom to the press and public for "security" reasons—citing sensitive classified information.

“When viewed in the context of the recent Justice Department actions against journalists and media outlets, the secrecy surrounding the trial of Bradley Manning sends an ominous message about how far the state is willing to go to prevent oversight of its actions.” - Jeremey Scahill

The lawsuit, as CCR stated Wednesday, is also a challenge to "the fact that substantive legal matters in the court martial – including a pretrial publicity order – have been argued and decided in secret" and that a military judge "can close the courtroom itself and the press and public would have no recourse to the military courts."

An example of the persistent secrecy charged by the plaintiffs was evidenced at Manning's final pretrial hearing on Tuesday, in which military Judge Denise Lind ruled it was "not possible to elicit coherently nuanced" testimony on classified information in open court. Lind decided that the court would completely close entire portions of the trial to the public and press during Manning's trial.

"The over-riding interest in protecting national security over-rides the risk of miscarriage of justice," said Lind.

However, as co-plaintiff and journalist Jeremy Scahill warned, "By unnecessarily cloaking these proceedings from public view or scrutiny, the government is undermining the most basic principles of transparency and freedom of the press, both of which are vital components of the democratic and judicial process."

“When viewed in the context of the recent Justice Department actions against journalists and media outlets," Scahill added, "the secrecy surrounding the trial of Bradley Manning sends an ominous message about how far the state is willing to go to prevent oversight of its actions.”

CCR has attempted to loosen the restrictive nature of Manning's trial before. The last suit was brought to the military court of appeals last May but it ultimately failed after a year-long battle, said Senior CCR Attorney Shayana Kadidal.

"The filing with the federal civilian courts is now our last option," Kadidal said, "If this lawsuit fails, Manning’s trial will take place under conditions where journalists and the public will be unable as a practical matter to follow what is going on in the courtroom."

Such lack of transparency, she concluded, "ensures that any verdict will be fundamentally unfair."

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