Bradley Manning Offers to Plead Guilty to Partial Charges, Including Leaking to WikiLeaks

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, left, is escorted from a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. Photo: Patrick Semansky / AP

In a surprising turn of events, accused WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning offered on Wednesday to plead guilty to parts of the charges he is facing, in exchange for the government pursuing lesser charges.

Manning did not plead guilty but indicated in a plea notice submitted by his attorney, David Coombs, that he is willing to accept responsibility for some of the lesser included charges, but not the charges as they stand in whole.

The move is known as “pleading by exceptions and substitutions” and is a strategy for negotiating the charges against him, which his attorney has tried repeatedly to do, unsuccessfully, via other means during pre-trial hearings.

Defense attorney Coombs wrote on his blog that Manning “is not pleading guilty to the specifications as charged” by prosecutors, but rather “is attempting to accept responsibility for offenses that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses.”

This includes pleading guilty to providing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, according to blogger Kevin Gosztola, who was at a hearing for Manning on Wednesday and broke the news. But it might not include pleading guilty to the espionage charge that Manning is facing or to aiding the enemy or exceeding authorized access on government networks.

“Coombs told the court Manning had submitted a plea notice indicating he would would accept general responsibility for providing all charged information to WikiLeaks,” Gosztola noted.

The move would help his attorney focus his defense on fewer points of contention, since it would take parts of the charges off the table at trial, though not eliminate charges in their entirety, which is what he has previously tried to do.

Manning’s attorney likely made the move in an effort to obtain a cap on sentencing that would hold even if he’s found guilty of the more serious charges to which he doesn’t plead guilty now, says Lisa Windsor, a retired Army colonel and former JAG officer now practicing military law with the New York law firm of Tully Rinckey. Manning currently faces life in prison if convicted of all the charges. The most serious charge — aiding the enemy — carries a possible death penalty. Prosecutors have already said they will not seek the death penalty, however.

“Pleading guilty is conceding that the government is able to prove these charges,” Windsor says, “and he doesn’t believe the government is able to prove the more serious charges of aiding the enemy.”

Manning’s attorney may also be hoping that the government will simply drop the more serious charges once he offers to plead guilty to the lesser included ones.

Windsor says she does not recall any cases that proceeded to trial after a defendant pleaded guilty to lesser included charges or used the “exceptions and substitutions” plea.

“Usually the accused pleads guilty and that’s it, or you have a contested trial,” she says. Having a case go to trial with a mixed plea – where some charges are pleaded and others are not – is unusual.

“Ideally if you offer to plead guilty you want the other charges to be dropped, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in this case,” she says, given the extensive number of charges Manning is facing, and the unusual nature of the case.

Manning did not approach prosecutors about a plea deal, but instead simply asked the court martial convening authority to decide whether what he’s suggesting is a permissible plea. If the convening authority determines that his plea is legally permissible, prosecutors can still decide to prove the charges against him.

“Pleading by exceptions and substitutions, in other words, does not change the offenses with which PFC Manning has been charged and for which he is scheduled to stand trial,” Coombs wrote.

Coombs has tried unsuccessfully both to have the number of charges against his client reduced — they currently stand at 22 charges — and to have the most serious charges of espionage and aiding the enemy dropped.

Manning also told the court on Wednesday that he was electing to have a trial by military judge, instead of a trial by jury. His trial is currently set for February.

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified and sensitive U.S. government documents to the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks, including the headline-making “Collateral Murder” video showing a deadly 2007 U.S. helicopter air strike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of several innocent civilians including two employees of the Reuters news agency.

In online chats with former hacker Adrian Lamo, Manning boasted of leaking a separate video related to the notorious 2009 Garani air strike in Afghanistan that WikiLeaks has previously acknowledged is in its possession, as well as the large databases that later formed WikiLeaks’ most high-profile releases. Those include over 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, more than 400,000 U.S. Army reports from the Iraq War and some 90,000 reports from the Afghanistan War.

U.S. WikiLeaks Criminal Probe ‘Ongoing,’ Judge Reveals

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures in August after his statement to the media and supporters on a balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London. Photo: AP

A 2-year-old federal grand jury probe into the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks is still “ongoing,” a federal judge in Virginia revealed Wednesday in a brief ruling.

It’s the first official confirmation since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was granted asylum by the Ecuadorean government in August that the grand jury investigation is continuing.

U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady of Alexandria, Virginia, noted the investigation in a legal flap surrounding three WikiLeaks associates who lost their bid to protect their Twitter records from U.S. investigators. The three had asked the court to unseal documents in their case. In May, O’Grady ordered the documents remain under seal for six months. On Wednesday he renewed that order, based on a government filing.

“For reasons stated in the memorandum of the United States, unsealing of the documents at this time would damage an ongoing criminal investigation,” O’Grady ruled. (.pdf)

The Justice Department served Twitter with a records demand in December 2010 as part of the investigation into WikiLeaks.

The targets of the records demand are WikiLeaks’ official Twitter account, and the accounts of three people connected to the group: Seattle coder and activist Jacob Appelbaum; Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament; and Dutch businessman Rop Gonggrijp. Jonsdottir and Gonggrijp helped WikiLeaks prepare the release of a classified U.S. Army video published last year, “Collateral Murder,” and Appelbaum was the site’s U.S. representative.

The court order Twitter complied with sought the full contact details for the Twitter accounts (phone numbers and addresses, even though Twitter doesn’t collect these — only an e-mail address), account payment method if any (credit card and bank account number), IP addresses used to access the account, connection records (“records of session times and durations”) and data transfer information, such as the size of data files sent to someone else, and the destination IP (though this isn’t technically possible in Twitter).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union unsuccessfully fought the Twitter order, arguing in part that it violated the account holders’ First Amendment rights. The groups lost, and the judge refused to stay his order pending appeal.

The order requiring Twitter to turn over information also showed that the authorities were seeking other information, including mailing addresses, billing information, email addresses, credit card and bank account numbers, and IP address information from other internet service providers.

The ACLU and EFF sought to unseal the government’s request for these records, but Judge O’Grady allowed the government to keep under seal those court orders.

The only person who has been charged with any crimes connected to WikiLeaks, is former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, whose long-delayed trial is scheduled for February. Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom. Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, claiming that if Assange is returned to Sweden to face questioning in a sex crimes investigation he’ll be shipped to the United States to face prosecution in connection to WikiLeaks.

 

EFF Sues to Block New California Internet Sex-Offender Law

Photo: hjl/Flickr

Immediately following the passage of a California proposition that would dramatically curtail the online, First Amendment rights of registered sex offenders, two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit to block parts of the overwhelmingly approved measure.

UPDATE: Citing First Amendment concerns, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco agreed with the plaintiffs, and late Wednesday tentatively blocked enforcement of the measure (.pdf) pending further litigation. 

Proposition 35, which passed with 81 percent of the vote Tuesday, would require that anyone who is a registered sex offender — including people with misdemeanor offenses such as indecent exposure and whose offenses were not related to activity on the internet — would have to turn over to law enforcement a list of all identifiers they use online as well as a list of service providers they use.

The Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act would force sex offenders to fork over to law enforcement their e-mail addresses, user and screen names, or any other identifier they used for instant messaging, for social networking sites or at online forums and in internet chat rooms.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed their suit (.pdf) on behalf of two registered sex offenders, say that although the measure is vaguely worded, in practice it likely means that registered sex offenders would have to provide user and screen names that they use for participation in online political discussion groups, forums about medical conditions, and even the comment sections of online newspapers and blogs.

“Requiring people to give up their right to speak freely and anonymously about civic matters is unconstitutional, and restrictions like this damage robust discussion and debate on important and controversial topics,” says Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF attorney. “When the government starts gathering online profiles for one class of people, we all need to worry about the precedent it sets.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco federal court, is demanding that a judge immediately block the measure’s internet-reporting provisions. No hearing has been set.

Michael Risher, an ACLU attorney, said Californians should be concerned that even though the bill only affects registered sex offenders now, the law creates a slippery slope for the same requirements to be applied to others.

He points, for example, to a California DNA-collection law that has expanded dramatically beyond the people it first targeted. Initially, the law required only those convicted of sex offenses and serious felonies to provide authorities with a DNA sample to be included in a state and federal database. But in 2004, this expanded to anyone convicted of a felony, and in 2009, to anyone simply arrested for a felony.

While voters might have passed the measure because they don’t care about the rights of sex offenders, Risher says, “The ability to speak freely and even anonymously is crucial for free speech to remain free for all of us.”

The measure would currently affect some 73,000 sex offenders registered in California, but the law also requires those convicted of human trafficking to register as sex offenders, thus widening the pool of people affected.

Those who breach the new requirements could be found in violation of their post-prison supervision requirements or in breach of sex-offender registration laws that require offenders to provide authorities with their residential address whenever they move. Sex offenders must turn over their online information to the law enforcement agency where they are registered, but those agencies may share the data with the California Department of Justice.

African Authorities Seize Kim Dotcom’s New File-Sharing Service’s Domain

Photo: Wilk

Kim Dotcom, the file-sharing kingpin indicted on criminal copyright infringement allegations in the United States, is suffering a setback in his purported quest to build a follow-up site to Megaupload, which U.S. authorities shuttered in January.

Authorities in the African nation of Gabon have seized the domain, me.ga, that Dotcom registered and claimed last week would be used to launch a new, encrypted site for file-sharing, to replace the Megaupload site that U.S. authorities shuttered last January. The domain, .ga, is the country domain for Gabon.

Gabon Communication Minister Blaise Louembe announced that he had “instructed” the government to “immediately suspend” Dotcom’s new site, which was hosted by Gabon Telecom, a subsidiary of French telecom Vivendi.

Dotcom tweeted that he had “an alternate domain” and blamed the U.S. for Gabon’s action, saying that the seizure “demonstrates the bad faith witch hunt the US government is on.”

The criminal prosecution of Megaupload targets seven individuals connected to the file-sharing site, including founder Dotcom. They were indicted in January on a variety of charges, including criminal copyright infringement and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Their extradition to the United States is pending.

Megaupload allowed users to upload large files and share them with others. The authorities allege the service was used almost exclusively for sharing copyrighted material without permission.