By Rich Gardella of NBC News and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com
The government's case against Pfc. Bradley Manning is really about keeping government secrets safe by silencing whistle-blowers across the U.S. government, WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg contended Wednesday.
Manning, 23, an Army intelligence analyst, is charged with leaking thousands of classified documents and diplomatic cables. It is widely believed he provided the documents to WikiLeaks, which began publishing them last year in cooperation with The New York Times and other news organizations.
Assange has never said Manning was the source, but he has made the soldier's treatment in U.S. custody — confined alone in a small cell at a Marine base in Virginia until he was transferred to Leavenworth prison in Kansas last month — a personal crusade, alleging that it was intended to humiliate him and send a message to would-be government whistle-blowers.
"I don't know whether it (the source) was Bradley Manning or not, but he is only person behind bars on that allegation," Assange said in explaining why he's been so dogged in defending Manning.
Joined on a conference call with reporters by Ellsberg, Manning's attorney and representatives of the Bradley Manning Support Network, Assange said the government's treatment of Manning amounted to using a "sledgehammer to crack a nut."
The government is trying "to terrorize whistle-blowers into not revealing information to the public," he charged.
Ellsberg, who triggered a Supreme Court freedom-of-the-press judgment when he leaked the Defense Department's secret history of the Vietnam War to The Times in 1971, called Manning a hero. He said Manning was "accused of being the one person who obeyed his oath to the Constitution" by disclosing government "crimes that could be prosecuted" during the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
The bigger danger, Ellsberg contended, is that if Manning is convicted, the government would be emboldened to further pursue journalists for reporting leaked material. He and Assange pointed to U.S. prosecutors' decision this week to subpoena Times reporter James Risen to testify at the trial of former CIA operative Jeffrey Sterling, who they allege leaked classified information that Risen used in his 2006 book about Iran's nuclear operations, "State of War."
The Justice Department has cited the 1917 Espionage Act in prosecuting Sterling and at least four other alleged sources of classified material used in various news reports, raising alarms among First Amendment activists that the Obama administration is pursuing a governmentwide war on whistle-blowers.
The administration's interpretation of the act is a fundamental threat to investigative journalism and to "any journalist who has a byline above classified material," Ellsberg said.
Assange added, "The Obama administration's attempts to expand 1917 Espionage Act ... will put a chill across all investigative journalism in the U.S."
But Assange also leveled scathing criticism at U.S. journalists, essentially saying they were wimping out in the face of unconstitutional federal pressure.
Saying U.S. coverage of Manning's case had been "appalling and salacious," Assange said: "Either the mainstream press collapses as an effective organ, and all sources are forced to deal only with WikiLeaks, or the U.S. is a free society that upholds values."
He added: "From our perspective — from WikiLeaks' perspective — either of these outcomes works."