Alexa O'Brien has become known as a "one-woman court record system" for her extensive coverage of whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning's trial. She has also covered the WikiLeaks release of US State Department Cables, the Guantanamo Files, the global "war on terror" and the Arab Spring.
This is an edited extract from a speech she gave to a public forum called “Defending Dissent: from Manning to Occupy” in Sydney on September 17. The full forum can be watched here.
I knew from the beginning the government would try and get away with conducting the [Manning] trial in de facto secrecy. Secrecy with classification, secrecy with the fact that there was no public docket — so normally you would have a courtroom and access to court documents and information. In the military system there are no dockets.
Manning was charged with “wanton publication” which had never been used before in federal or military court ever, and so many precedents were being blown through, and none of that was recorded … I knew the press wasn’t going to do an adequate job.
I’m excited for the public to get to meet [Manning] because the young man, at the time, that I saw in the courtroom is quite extraordinary.
When you listen to this individual on the stand or see the way in which Manning handled herself in the court martial and when you really understand what Manning was up against, the full weight of the US government piling down on her — a life sentence plus 149 years is not a joke — and when you see the lack of press coverage and what I would consider to be abusive coverage and character assassination, people exploiting her story … it was extraordinary how she completely disarmed the military prosecutor by being so respectful, earnest, measured, scientific and sweet.
With regards to [Julian] Assange and WikiLeaks, there is no question the US government is after Assange. It’s quite obvious the US government is hellbent on neutralising WikiLeaks.
They can do that in two ways: through the intelligence process or through the judicial process. In the “war on terror” most of the US government’s application of national power is extrajudicial — diplomatic, information, military, economic, finance, intelligence and law enforcement — those are the prongs of US national power.
What you’ve seen with WikiLeaks is the entire inter-agency process honed in on one threat. When James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, goes before the Senate Armed Services committee and says that WikiLeaks is a worldwide national security threat, that’s not a joke.
That tells you that WikiLeaks is going to be treated as a counter-intelligence threat and is going to be handled the same way the US handles everything in the “war on terror”. We don’t need to prosecute terrorists, we kill them with drones or we will cripple their finances.
The criminal investigation into WikiLeaks continues, the FBI is investigating seven civilians — the founders, owners and managers of WikiLeaks.
In terms of the trial, what was really critical was that Manning was found not guilty of the Granai air strike video. This was a video of a bombing in May 2009 where the US killed about 150 women and children. A health worker told Human Rights Watch that it was like Judgement Day.
There was a lot of scrutiny placed on the Pentagon about it and the Pentagon promised to release the video but they never did. And Manning was charged with the Granai air strike video and what was strange was the superseding indictment, the second charge sheet which came in 2011, had moved all the time frames up to early November and all the time frames — specifically for aiding the enemy and the air strike — they all centred around this early November timeframe.
The reason the government wanted to move the time frame closer was because they wanted to assert that Manning was leaking from the minute she got to Iraq and it was a way to dovetail this prosecution in with the Grand Jury. If Manning had been convicted over the Granai video, she would have been convicted of aiding the enemy.
The US congress continues to pass legislation that allows for the indefinite detention of anyone, anywhere in the world without trial or without charges. And you’re all a part of that, by the way.
So Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner journalist and author, sued [US President Barack] Obama over this unconstitutional piece of legislation. Six other people joined the suit and I was one of them and we won, the law was struck down.
Then the department of justice came back and did a midnight appeal and won. So we’ve made an application to the Supreme Court. This reason, this is important — and we have US and non-US citizens involved in the suit — in the Southern District the judge found that this violated our constitutional rights, because Hedges and I are US citizens. They said we don’t have to worry about it because the military can’t detain citizens, but the others definitely should be worried because they’re not US citizens and so it’s possible this law could be used against them.
But this law is already being used to detain people. The government kept asserting that it’s not different to the authorisation for use of military force after September 11. But clearly the executive have a secret interpretation of the AUMF because when we won in the Southern District they freaked out and immediately said please don’t let this lapse even for one day, we need this legislation.
I think if WikiLeaks survives — which means that the US government will back down and the organisation prevails — and I believe they will because I am an optimist, it will set a precedent. It will open a whole sphere up for alternative journalism.
It’s an enormous battle, and I’m not under any delusions that it isn’t a long fight but it’s vital that WikiLeaks does not get destroyed by the US government.