There are numerous serious questions relating to the handling of evidence in this case. I should start by saying that the government of the United States had objected to almost all of the defence evidence. They want the defence witnesses ruled as either not expert (hence the sustained rudeness and attacks) or not relevant. Judge Baraitser had ruled that she will hear all the evidence, and decide only when she comes to judgement, what is and is not admissible.
Against that we then have her decision that the witnesses can only have half an hour of going through their statements before cross-examination. That is against a US government request that witness statements should not be heard before cross-examination at all. Theoretically Baraitser agreed to this, but she let in half an hour to “orient the witness”, which gets the basic facts out there. Baraitser rejected the defence arguments that statements should be read or explained at length by the witness in court, for the benefit of the public, on the basis that the statements are published. But they are not published. The Court does not publish them. It gives copies to journalists registered to cover the trial, but those journalists have no interest in publishing them. The first two days’ witness statements were published here, but for several days they stopped. They seem to have started again on Friday, but this is not satisfactory for the public.
Next we have the specific pieces of evidence that are banned on US objection, like the details of el-Masri’s torture or of the content of the Collateral Murder video. I can understand that it is true that this court is not judging if el-Masri was tortured – in fact that is now established by the ECHR. But plainly his story is relevant to Wikileaks’ defence of necessary publication to prevent crime and enable judicial process. The fact is that the USA wants to avoid the political embarrassment and media publicity of el-Masri’s torture and the events of the Collateral Murder video being detailed in court. Why an English court is complying in this censorship is beyond me.
I am deeply suspicious of the “breakdown” of the videolink making el-Masri’s evidence in person “technically impossible” after days in which the US government tried to block that evidence. I am also deeply suspicious of the strange fact that unlike other witnesses with video problems, there was no rescheduling. Video and sound quality has been deplorable for several defence witnesses. In a world where we have all got used to videocalls this last few months, the extraordinary failure of the court to operate everyday technology is a level of incompetence it is difficult quite to believe in.
Finally and more importantly, what constitutes evidence?
Lewis consistently and repeatedly quotes the words of Luke Harding and David Leigh to witnesses, more or less every day, yet Leigh and Harding are not in the witness box to be cross-examined on their words. As you know, I am absolutely furious that Lewis has been allowed to repeat Harding’s words about the conversation in the El Moro restaurant to witness after witness, but that John Goetz, who was actually part of the conversation and an eyewitness, was not permitted by the court to testify on the subject. That is absolutely ludicrous.
Finally, we have the affidavits submitted by Kromberg and Dwyer on behalf of the US government. These are apparently treated as “evidence”. Lewis specifically categorised Dwyer’s proof free assertion in Dywer’s affidavit that informants had been harmed, as “evidence” this had happened. But how can these affidavits be evidence if the authors cannot be cross-examined on them? One of the defence counsel told me on Friday that Kromberg will not be made available for cross-examination, as though they had just been told of that. It is not right that an affidavit full of highly dodgy statements and propositions should be accepted as evidence if the author cannot be challenged. The whole question of “evidence” in this case needs a fundamental rethink.
On another point, I was very pleased Nicky Hager testified under oath that in the cables he redacted “strictly protect” designation of names was used to prevent political embarrassment, as the prosecution has repeatedly claimed that the 134,000 unclassified and/or redacted cables in the original limited mass cable release by Wikileaks included names marked “strictly protect”. This is not a security classification. As someone who operated the near identical UK system for over 20 years and held the very highest levels of security clearance, and frequently in that period read American material, let me explain to you. Any material which contained the name of someone who would be at risk of death if published, or which would create real and acute danger to the national interest, would by very definition have been classified “Secret” or “Top Secret”, the latter generally relating to intelligence material. All of the Chelsea Manning material was at a level of classification below that.
Furthermore as Daniel Ellsberg pointed out, and I was very well used to, there exists separately to the classification a distribution system which limits who actually gets the material. The Manning material was unlimited in distribution and therefore available literally to tens of thousands of people. That again could not have happened if it contained the dangers now claimed.
“Strictly protect” is nothing to do with security classification, which is what protects national security information. As Hager said, its normal use is to prevent political embarrassment. As in Australasia, it is a term largely used to protect their secret political assets. Here is an example from a Wikileaks cable which I believe is one of those in the specific release which the prosecution is citing.