An attorney for Pvt. Bradley Manning, the lone soldier accused of funneling volumes of secret information to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, has a couple of high value targets on his list of dream witnesses: namely, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton was not being sought to provide any genuine evidence: instead, her testimony was requested so that Coombs can attempt to claim that Manning’s actions did not cause any serious foreign policy difficulties for the U.S.
President Obama, on the other hand, was being sought for testimony because of a public statement he made in April, insisting that Manning had broken the law. He made the comment offhand after a group of protesters interrupted his speech to sing a song in support of Manning.
Attorney David E. Coombs will attempt to argue that Obama’s statement amounts to an “unlawful command influence” on the military, of which he is the commander-in-chief. He also hopes to question the president about the “nature of his discussions with members of the military regarding this case and whether he has made any other statements that would either influence the prosecution of this case or PFC Manning’s right to obtain a fair trial.”
Coombs also hopes to ask Obama if the trove of secret information Manning allegedly leaked revealed “any issues that had not already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.” Additionally, he hopes to press the president about his administration’s commitment to openness and transparency.
Neither Obama nor Clinton are named in the witness list — all of the witnesses being called have had their names blacked out of the document — but the supporting details that explain why their testimony was being sought make their identities clear.
While the appearance of Obama and Clinton on the witness list will be enough to generate headlines and publicity for Coombs and Manning, it is highly unlikely that either will testify. The president and his top advisers can claim executive privilege and refuse to testify, much as President George W. Bush did when faced with congressional subpoenas. President Bill Clinton, as well, claimed executive privilege to avoid testifying in the Monica Lewinski sex scandal, although it was later rejected by a federal judge.
Regardless of whether either official testifies, Coombs’ planned line of questioning sounds almost like an admission of guilt, littered with arguments about how the alleged crime didn’t cause much damage and actually enhanced public debate.
While all of the above might actually be true, Manning is still charged with aiding the enemy, violating the Espionage Act and disobeying orders. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, unless his attorney can convince a military court that Manning did not commit these acts.
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