Notetakers denied Manning trial access

WikiLeaks case officials refuse to release trial transcripts, and crowdfunded stenographers were denied press passes

On the heels of a weekend rally that drew hundreds of supporters to Fort Meade, MD, Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial begins Monday at the military base there. Manning faces charges of violating the Espionage Act and “aiding the enemy” for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks in the biggest leak in US history.

While the trial is open to the public, journalists covering the pretrial hearings have been frustrated by the military judge’s refusal to release court documents, including the written rulings and a transcript of the proceedings. Through a crowdfunding campaign, Freedom of the Press Foundation raised nearly $60,000 to hire professional court stenographers to create a public transcript, but the stenographers were denied press passes, the foundation announced Saturday.

More than 350 applicants requested press passes but only 70 were granted, with the Army citing space limitations, the foundation said. A group of 18 20 major media organizations, including NPR, Fox News, The Guardian, Forbes, Politico, McClatchy, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Media sent a letter to the court Monday requesting that two additional passes be granted for the stenographers. The foundation is calling on news organizations that aren’t using their press passes to lend them out until a permanent solution can be found.

“What we’re really worried about is this first week, and any day where there might be some real newsworthy witness or something along those lines,” Executive Director Trevor Timm told CJR. The foundation was able to get one stenographer into the media room on Monday using a borrowed pass from Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network.

The lack of an official, realtime transcript—a document typically provided for federal criminal trials—posed practical challenges for journalists during the pretrial hearings. Shane Kadidal, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that the military judge read into the record at approximately 180 words per minute for two hours at a time. Recording devices are barred, so members of the press have had to get by with longhand notes from the courtroom—where only pen and paper are permitted—or can type notes on their computers in the media room.

“It’s a huge hassle for members of both the professional and nonprofessional media who are trying to cover the case,” Kadidal said. On May 22, his organization filed a complaint on behalf of journalists in federal district court, requesting that transcripts and court documents be made public. The group sought access last year through the military justice system, but in April the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear claims from media petitioners.

In lieu of an official transcript during the pretrial hearings, independent journalist Alexa O’Brien took meticulous notes and posted her own transcripts online. In April, O’Brien told The Huffington Post she spends at least 14 hours a day working on the case.

Some critics of the judge’s no-transcript policy see it as an intentional move to deter coverage of the biggest state secrets case since the Pentagon Papers. “Big wire services [are] saying, ‘Look, we don’t know if it’s really worth it for us to send a person, especially if the conditions stay that way,’” Kadidal said.

To Timm, the case is indicative of wider transparency issues across the military justice system. “These rules don’t just apply to Bradley Manning,” he said. “There’s this unnecessary secrecy problem with all court martials.”

Transparency advocates are also critical of the judge’s recent ruling to close portions of the trial to prevent releasing classified information.

Freedom of the Press Foundation plans to post the professional stenographers’ transcripts on its website less than 12 hours after each day’s proceedings. The trial is expected to last three to four months.

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Susan Armitage is a freelance reporter in New York City working on a master's degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism