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US media urges end to secrecy in WikiLeaks case

US media urges end to secrecy in WikiLeaks case

Rights groups and news outlets urged military judges Wednesday to grant public access to records in the court-martial of WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning, condemning the case’s excessive secrecy.

The judges repeatedly grilled the government’s attorney as to why court motions and other papers could not be released from the case, but indicated they might not have the authority to weigh in on the constitutional question.

A lawyer representing an array of groups including 31 news media organizations told the US military’s Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that reporters were hamstrung trying to inform the public about the Manning case because court orders and motions were kept secret.

Manning, a US Army private, is accused of handing over a massive trove of classified documents to the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks in the worst security breach in US history.

The proceedings in the Manning case are open to the public but the judge’s written rulings and orders, along with other court documents, are not released openly.

“If the public is to have any faith in its government generally and the justice administered by military tribunals specifically, it needs to have confidence that the system is operating in the open, where potential misconduct may be exposed,” said a brief filed to the court by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

But moments after CCR lawyer Shayana Kadidal stood to address the court, the judges bombarded him with questions about their authority to take up the issue.

“How do we have the jurisdiction over this matter?” Judge Margaret Ryan asked him.

Kadidal appeared surprised and said the government previously had not raised the issue.

After hearing arguments for and against opening up court records, Chief Judge James Baker asked both sides to file motions later this month addressing whether the military court of appeals had the authority to decide the issue.

The judges, however, appeared sympathetic to the plea for more openness, posing skeptical questions to the government’s military lawyer.

The government’s counsel, Captain Chad Fisher, argued that the judge presiding over the Manning case had no constitutional obligation to release court papers and that journalists or citizens could seek access to the documents through a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

One judge noted that the military tribunals set up for terror suspects held at the US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay posted documents online, making them more open than Manning’s court-martial.

“If they can do it, why can’t you?” asked Judge Charles Erdmann.

Ryan questioned the government’s decision to make “a big to do” over the written records, stressing court documents are posted online in most jurisdictions.

Instead of “quibbling” about the constitutional requirement and arguing in court, she asked why the government could not resolve the issue in a “simple and reasonable” manner.

If the military court of appeals concludes it has no jurisdiction in the case, Kadidal told reporters his legal team might seek relief from a federal court and to delay the court-martial if necessary until the matter is resolved.

Manning’s trial is scheduled to start on February 4, after months of preliminary hearings.

The news organizations and press freedom groups that backed the challenge to the court-martial’s secrecy included the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the McClatchy publishing company and other news outlets.

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