'WE OVERCLASSIFY WAY TOO MUCH' Coombs. [Photo by Andrea Hansen/RWU Law]
ON THE FREQUENCY OF LEAKS AND WHO GETS PROSECUTED FOR THEM: Anyone who is in Washington or around Washington at all for any lengthy period of time, realizes that leaks happen every day of classified information. Many of those leaks are authorized; many of those leaks are designed to make the government look good. And sometimes the leaks are authorized in order to affect policy. And yet those leaks are never investigated. It’s only those unauthorized leaks, those leaks [for] which the government hasn’t said, “Yeah, we want that information out,” that it’s pursued through criminal prosecution.
There wasn’t a section of the government that was not impacted by this in some way, in the form of embarrassment. So you have the Department of Defense, you have the Department of State, you have the CIA, the FBI, multiple agencies that were impacted in one way or another. And it didn’t make the United States government look good in many respects. So you immediately created an enemy out of the entire United States government by releasing this. And you saw that with how aggressively they pursued the charges in this case.
And I also saw it first-hand by, every day being in the courtroom, I looked across the aisle and I saw the government. Their team was six prosecutors with about another 15 support staff. Then behind them was a whole group of attorneys from the Department of State, Department of Defense, and other agencies.
Whenever I walked up to them to say, “Hello, My name is David Coombs, and you are. . .?” They would say, “No.”
And I’m like, “Well, you know, it’s polite to give me your name.”
So then I took to just guessing, like, “Welcome! I love when the CIA’s in the house. . . .”
I didn’t get a smile out of them.
ON WHETHER THERE WERE “RED FLAGS” THAT OUGHT TO HAVE GIVEN MANNING’S SUPERIORS REASON TO REASSESS HIS SECURITY CLEARANCE: My client had a lot of issues that were impacting him and this goes to the gender dysphoria. Shortly before the deployment, he had various issues that should have resulted in a suspension of the clearance, but even during the deployment [as well].
Ask yourself this: you’re my client’s supervisor right now and this is what happens. You’re doing your job and one of your subordinates comes in and says, “Hey ma’am or sir, Pfc. Manning is in the conference room. I think there’s a problem. You might want to check that out.”
And you go back there and you open up the conference room and you see Pfc. Manning on the floor, curled up in a ball, rolling back and forth. And you see in front of Pfc. Manning a knife. And you see parts of the vinyl chair that’s in front of him also in front of him in little bits. And in the vinyl chair you see the words carved “I want.”
Pfc. Manning’s rocking back and forth and you say to him, “Pfc. Manning, what’s going on?” And he doesn’t respond. He continues to rock back and forth. And again you talk to him to get a response. And the third or fourth time he finally responds and you ask, “What’s the problem? What’s the matter?” And he starts to talk to you about feeling like he is not himself, that he can’t be himself, feeling as if there are multiple shells to him and they’re all crumbling down around him.
You are a military person who has a duty to that soldier, to take care of that soldier. And you don’t. You don’t do anything at that point. You talk to Pfc. Manning for about a half an hour, and then you tell Pfc. Manning, “Go back to work.”
I love the military. I love being a lieutenant colonel in the military. I love non-commissioned officers. And I love people who raise their right hand and say, “I’m going to defend this country.” But at every step of the way, Pfc. Manning’s leadership failed him. And that was just one example where a good leader could have said, “You know what? Something’s not right. What’s the matter? Let me talk to you.” Pull you aside [and say], “Perhaps you need a little bit of time off; you’re not going back to work. We’re going to walk you over to Mental Health and let you talk to somebody and see what the greater issue is.”
In this case, there was not a level of the chain of leadership that didn’t fail. I’ve never seen that. In my entire time in the military, there’s always been somebody who is the type of person who is like, “No. Here is the standard. We’re going to enforce that standard.” But from company all the way up to brigade, it was a complete and utter failure.
ON WHETHER MANNING’S LEAKS PUT OTHER SOLDIERS IN HARM’S WAY: This was a common refrain right after these leaks were done: that these leaks are going to put soldiers in harm’s way, that the blood of some American soldiers is going to be on the hands of Pfc. Manning, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks.
And to say that, there’s a certain catch of, “Yeah, I understand. That seems reasonable. You’re releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents. How wouldn’t that put soldiers lives at risk? Clearly that must put soldiers’ lives at risk.”
The reality of the situation. . . goes back to overclassification. We overclassify way too much. All the information that Pfc. Manning released could have been declassified. The government had three years — three years — to perfect a case of damage, three years to show how this harmed the United States, three years to show a soldier hurt or endangered or a mission compromised, three years to show how [for] our country the sky fell like they were saying. . . And three years later: nothing.
I think there was potential, certainly. You would have to acknowledge that, yes, when he made this decision there was the potential this could harm the United States. [But] looking through the [government-generated] damage assessments, there was nothing in there that was concrete where you would think, ”You leaked this information and this happened.” Everything was speculative: “Well, you did this and there was potential that this could happen.”
And at the time that it was written, you might say, “Well, OK. I understand it’s speculative because the time hasn’t happened yet in order for that event to come into play, where it actually does occur.” But these things were updated and again it was still speculative. The witnesses who testified — the subject matter experts who came to testify at the trial — all testified the same way, of things that “could” happen, “potentially” happen.
Well, there has to come a day where that’s no longer a possibility. You have to get to a point where you’re like, “OK, it’s been three years or it’s been five years or it’s been 10 years.” I don’t think that event’s going to happen. I think we’re safe in assuming that it didn’t happen.
Philip Eil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.