"Hypothetical question," reads a chat log alleged to contain the confessions of Private First Class Bradley Manning, "if you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time ... and you saw incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC ... what would you do?"
It was May 22, 2010. The 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst had reached out to Adrian Lamo, a convicted hacker and ex-San Franciscan who was about to turn him in. In a days-long series of often-disjointed chats that Lamo eventually conducted with the feds peering over his shoulder, Manning appears to take credit for siphoning hundreds of thousands of government documents from military servers — and delivering them into the hands of a "crazy white-haired Aussie" named Julian Assange.
Had Manning posed his question to Oakland's Jeff Paterson, the answer might have been different. Paterson, a former Marine best known for taking a seat on the tarmac rather than boarding a plane bound for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf War, has made a career of such questions of conscience. After years of organizing to support military war resisters and conscientious objectors with legal advice, funding, publicity, and emotional support, Paterson formally founded the nonprofit organizing collective Courage to Resist in 2005. Now, eight months into Manning's notably harsh pre-trial confinement, Paterson is one of the most prominent voices in the movement to support the suspected WikiLeaks source.
To date, Paterson and Courage to Resist have led an international coalition in raising and transferring $125,000 to Manning's legal team. "Our goal is to shift the scales of military justice so Bradley has a fighting chance at court martial," Paterson explained in a recent interview.
Courage to Resist expects a pretrial hearing to occur in late May or early June. A court martial is not expected until the end of the year, Paterson said. Manning faces 34 charges relating to the largest revelation of government secrets in American history, including leaked diplomatic cables, Pentagon documents on Iraq and Afghanistan, and two videos of civilian killings.
Twenty-two of the counts are new as of last month, including a potentially capital charge of "aiding the enemy." Though the Pentagon has said it will not seek the death penalty, Paterson and the Bradley Manning Support Network are planning to raise an additional $50,000 to cover the "extra experts, witnesses, and mitigation people" necessary to defend a capital case.
In the meantime, argues Paterson, the Pentagon is "still using regulations that should not apply to Bradley all at the same time — in a way that they do not and have not done in any other case — in order to extract as much pretrial punishment as they can get away with."
Manning's attorney, David Coombs, says his client is forced to sleep in the nude at night and has been made to wear a "suicide smock." The public controversy over Manning's treatment recently inspired State Department spokesman PJ Crowley to publicly call it "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid," a statement for which he quickly resigned.
At six-foot-six, Paterson is almost too much presence for his organization's one-room Oakland office. Filled with shirts, posters, and buttons bearing Manning's face, the space — though small — is still significantly larger than the Virginia cell where Paterson said Manning spends 23 isolated hours per day.
Though he spent time in solitary confinement after refusing to deploy to Iraq, Paterson said such treatment typically lasts days and not months. "It's bearable because you know it's only going to be another six days, another seven days. It's sort of a jail initiation. But for Bradley to have endured this for eight months now for no end in sight, that's something I think about. It's a motivating factor for getting up and doing this work."
Courage to Resist continues to field several calls and e-mails per day from service members seeking advice on everything from obtaining conscientious objector status to turning themselves in after being absent without leave. Many of the group's clients suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder and believe that they cannot healthily return to service, Paterson added.
Since its founding, the organization has worked with about 25 people who have gone all the way to court martial; in many cases, fund-raising drives have covered the entirety of a resister's legal expenses. Among these cases is that of Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Watada is now "running an upscale hamburger restaurant in Vegas," Paterson said with an appreciative laugh.
Oklahoma attorney James M. Branum, who regularly works with soldiers at Fort Hood who seek military discharges, estimates that about 20 percent of his cases involve Courage to Resist in some way. "Besides raising money, probably the most important thing they do is getting the word out," he said. Paterson also helps resisters find emotional support. "A lot of these folks, they need some friends in the process," Branum added.
Ex-airman Michael Thurman is one of the resisters who gained conscientious objector status with Paterson's help. A Taoist, he now works part-time at Courage to Resist, devoting much of his recent effort to the Manning campaign. "I stayed close with Jeff," he said.
The group has apparently not always had a perfect relationship with WikiLeaks, however. When Assange and his organization failed after several months to make good on a promise of monetary support for Manning, Paterson criticized WikiLeaks in a press release. But he insists today that the issue was a minor one. WikiLeaks has since donated more than $15,000 toward Manning's legal fees.
Additionally, Paterson argued that the US military is not going to respond to "political pressure from a web site in Sweden or Australia or Iceland. Either Americans were going to step up and support Bradley or they weren't."
Late last month, thousands of people traveled to the White House to protest Manning's treatment — police in Washington and Quantico even arrested Kensington resident and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg twice in one weekend. Ellsberg has lent his weighty name to the Manning cause since the young man's arrest last May; he now sits on the advisory board of the Bradley Manning Support Network, a group that Paterson said got its start as a web site created by an American expat in Slovakia. When Paterson joined them to kick around ideas, there was only talk of setting up a trust fund so that someday Manning might have "beer money and a place to stay," he recalled with a laugh. It is through the organization that Paterson now manages fund-raising efforts for Manning's legal fund.
Today the network is a serious movement, thanks in part to Paterson's particular expertise. "I think without support there would be no question that he would be facing death or life in prison, and that the military would just love to put him away for the rest of his life and say, 'Hey, at least we didn't kill him,'" he said. "I think with a grassroots movement — the type we are beginning to develop — he has a real chance of justice."