HAGERSTOWN, Md. – The Army private suspected in one of the largest unauthorized disclosures of classified information in U.S. history has become a hero to many anti-war activists who have joined an international effort to free him.
At demonstrations this month in New York, Oklahoma City and Quantico, Va., where Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is being held, dozens of supporters have shouted that "Blowing the whistle on war crimes is not a crime."
The same slogan appears beside Manning's smiling face on buttons and posters offered by Courage to Resist, an Oakland, Calif.-based support group for U.S. troops who refuse to fight. The group has raised about $45,000 from nearly 750 people in 18 countries to help pay for a civilian defense lawyer for Manning, project director Jeff Paterson said.
"I think we have an imperative to support those people who've seen the horrors of battle and want to share that reality with the American people," Paterson said.
Manning, 22, a former intelligence analyst in Baghdad, faces possible court-martial on charges that he illegally downloaded classified material. If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to 52 years in prison.
The material he allegedly leaked included 2007 video of a laughing U.S. Apache helicopter crew gunning down 11 men who were later found to include a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately.
The video was posted in April on WikiLeaks, a self-professed whistleblower website, and labeled "Collateral Murder."
The Pentagon suspects Manning is also the source of 77,000 classified Afghan war reports that WikiLeaks posted in July and 15,000 more such documents that WikiLeaks says it intends to publish in coming weeks. U.S. officials say the disclosures have endangered innocent people or confidential informants.
Manning, a Crescent, Okla., native who lived in Potomac, Md., before joining the Army, has been assigned military lawyers who declined to comment on the charges. He has not yet retained a civilian attorney.
He was arrested in May after telling an online confidant, who later turned him in to authorities, that he had sent classified information to WikiLeaks.
Some consider Manning's alleged actions treasonous. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has said that if Manning is charged and convicted of leaking the Afghan war documents, he should be executed for aiding the enemy.
But JoAnna Pease, 27, a graduate student in women's studies from Venice, Calif., said watching the Apache helicopter video made her want more unvarnished facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Somebody needed to stand up and provide this information," she said. "Regardless of who it is, they're really more an American hero than any sort of criminal."
Pease and 28-year-old Laraine Reitman, a San Diego writer, are steering committee members of the Bradley Manning Support Network, launched by Mike Gogulski, a U.S. citizen living in Bratislava, Slovakia. Neither woman considered herself an anti-war activist before seeing the helicopter video; now they find themselves plotting strategy alongside seasoned demonstrators like Paterson and Gerry Condon, a Vietnam-era war protester who heads the Seattle branch of Veterans for Peace.
Some of the causes Manning embraced haven't embraced him. He told his online confidant, former computer hacker Adrian Lamo, "I want people to see the truth ... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public," according to their chat logs.
But open-records advocates don't necessarily support Manning. Steven Aftergood, who heads a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said WikiLeaks has been indiscriminate in releasing the Afghan war logs — and that Manning, if he is the source, would bear some responsibility for that.
A U.S. crackdown on WikiLeaks could hurt freedom-of-information reform efforts, he said.
"Any tools that are used against WikiLeak are likely to be used against other organizations and media outlets, and that would do long-term damage to freedom of the press," Aftergood said.
Manning expressed support on his Facebook page for gay rights including Repeal the Ban, which seeks to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals serving in the military.
But the American Veterans For Equal Rights, which also opposes "don't ask, don't tell," says Manning is a traitor.
"The guy is disturbed and it's not because he's gay," said Denny Meyer, the group's national spokesman. "If he were sentenced to death, I'd volunteer to pull the trigger."