The Army private charged in the biggest leak of classified material in U.S. history pleaded guilty to 10 charges Thursday and offered an impassioned defense of his actions, arguing that he sought to spark a national debate about what he described as the nation’s obsession with “killing and capturing people.”
The testimony marked Pfc. Bradley Manning’s first detailed account of his disclosure of a trove of U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents in 2010 to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy organization he said he approached after he was unable to entice The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Manning’s detailed account of his work as an intelligence analyst in Iraq and his decision to divulge sensitive documents are certain to elevate his folk-hero status among the band of supporters who hail him as a conscientious whistle-blower rather than a traitor.
“We were risking so much for people who seemed unwilling to cooperate with us,” the 25-year-old soldier said, speaking calmly and quietly. It was spawning “frustration and hatred on both sides,” he said, adding: “I became depressed.”
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Manning said that WikiLeaks never pressured him to turn over documents and that he came to see the group led by Australian Julian Assange as the best vehicle to dump the war logs and cables into the public domain.
“I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate over the role of the military and our foreign policy in general,” Manning said in a statement he read while seated next to his attorneys in a packed courtroom at Fort Meade.
U.S. officials have said the leaked information exposed intelligence sources and embarrassed key officials of foreign governments.
Intelligence assessments of the damage will not be presented until the sentencing phase of Manning’s court-martial.
He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison after his conviction on charges related to the misuse of classified information.
Manning is set to stand trial in June on 12 more serious charges, including aiding the enemy and espionage. A conviction probably would result in a life sentence.
Manning said he called The Post, seeking a journalist willing to examine documents detailing security incidents in Iraq. He said he spoke to a female reporter who didn’t seem to take him seriously.
Manning then left a message at an answering machine at The Times but never heard back, he testified. Spokesmen for The Post and The Times said Thursday that the newspapers had no knowledge about any attempts by Manning to offer information.
Undeterred, he decided to approach WikiLeaks, which he said he admired for its efforts to expose the inner workings of the U.S. military. When he submitted documents to the group’s website the following month, he said, he chose the material carefully.
“I felt a sense of relief,” he said, adding that it gave him a “clear conscience.”
Manning said an online relationship he struck up with a person he assumed was Assange while he was feeding WikiLeaks information offered a reprieve from a hostile environment in the Army.
Both men used pseudonyms during daily online chats, he said, that covered personal issues, including Manning’s feelings of alienation while he shared a small housing unit with a comrade who appeared to dislike gays.
“I looked forward to conversations,” he said, because they “allowed me to be myself.”
Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 after he was identified as the leaker by a former hacker in whom the young soldier had confided over the Internet.
He was later transferred to the military jail at Quantico, Va., where his attorneys say his long solitary confinement was abusive.