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Bradley Manning: Patriotic whistle-blower or American traitor? (+video)

The court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning began Monday. Manning has said the documents he sent to WikiLeaks served a valuable purpose. Others agree, but that might not help him legally.

Protestors turn out to support Bradley Manning
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It was during his tour in Iraq in 2010 as he was serving as an intelligence analyst that Pfc. Bradley Manning watched a video stored in the US military’s database that showed two pilots accidentally shooting civilians, among them children and two Reuters reporters.

What particularly bothered him, he said during a statement he read in a February pretrial court hearing, was not only that innocent civilians were killed. It was the cavalier banter of the US military pilots, whose cockpit audio was recorded along with the video.

The pilots were urging a mortally wounded civilian, who was attempting to crawl to safety, to just "pick up a weapon" so they could shoot him. When they realized they had accidentally killed children by firing on a van that was trying to rescue the Reuters reporters, they said, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

When Reuters news filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the video, US Central Command, which was running the war in Iraq, replied that “the video might no longer exist,” Private Manning said. Another US military spokesperson told reporters that CENTCOM did not believe that the video was authentic.

It was at that point, Manning said in February, that he “believed there was a compelling need” for him to release the video to the WikiLeaks website himself.

To Manning's defenders, these comments go to the heart of who he is: a conscientious and seminal whistle-blower in an administration highly averse to leaks. They add that his case is no less important – and bears striking similarities – to the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study examining how the United States had become embroiled in the Vietnam War and, ultimately, how the government had misled the American people.

To critics, the Manning's WikiLeaks trove was nothing like the Pentagon Papers – it did not expose systemic lying by high-ranking government officials, but rather contravened clear rules for whistle-blowing simply to embarrass the military. Some have even called him a traitor. 

The distinction might not ultimately have an effect on Manning's court-martial, which began Monday at Fort Meade in Maryland. The laws on whistle-blowing are clear, and Manning appears to have clearly broken them, legal experts say.

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