Transcript: Q&A with Defense Attorney David Coombs on PFC Bradley Manning

Transcribed & edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of Q&A* with David Coombs, Defense Attorney for Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, at the Bradley Manning Support Network event in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2012:

* Pre-selected questions from the news media 

Question: In your opinion, what sort of person is Bradley Manning and what is his state of mind?

David Coombs: Well, I think Bradley is probably one of the more intelligent people I’ve ever met. Brad has the ability, I think, to talk about a wide range of topics. He’s a young man obviously, though. And with that, he has limited experiences. But Brad does a lot of things really kind of from the heart. He tends to care a lot about people, and so his conduct and his actions are usually driven by that.

As far as his mental state or how he is being – I guess – of a mind today, I can tell you that he is very excited about having his case go forward. And it’s in the process now. It’s been a long time.

And he’s also, at this point, very encouraged by the way the proceedings are going. I think he feels good about his defense – at least I hope he does. And at this point, I believe that he’s confident that things will hopefully turn out okay for him.

Question: What can ordinary citizens do to help Bradley Manning?

David Coombs: Well, I think the biggest thing is to make sure that this case doesn’t get lost in the minutia of everything else going on in this world.

It is, by far, the most important military case but it’s a case that has significance for all of us.

Because in this country, in the country that I’m proud to serve in the United States Army Reserve now – we live in a country that is built on freedom of speech. We live in a country that’s built on government accountability and informed citizens.

So I think that this point the biggest thing that you can do is stay involved, to stay informed, and to make sure those that you have elected into public office understand your views.

Question: Have you perceived a difference in the way he’s being treated in court as time goes on?

David Coombs: I have not. That is, I think, Bradley is treated professionally in court. Military court martial is a, in my opinion, the best court room you can go into.

I practice both in state and federal, and I know anyone who doesn’t have experience with the military justice system may view it with a suspicious eye.

But from my perspective, it is by far the best court room for Bradley to be in.

Question: How do your experiences in the military and civilian life inform how you approach courts martial generally and this case specifically?

David Coombs: That actually is a good follow-up to what I was just saying. You know, a lot of people would look at our military justice system and say this seems to be very foreign to me. You have an officer – an enlisted type panel, if you go with a panel, that’s selected by the person who’s convened the court martial. You have a military judge that is in the military and there’s some suspicion that that person may be subject to some influence.

And so when you look at it from the outside, you could see and perhaps think that the system is built to obtain a certain outcome.

I could tell you with confidence, again, having practiced in both state and federal and in military practice, that a court martial is by far the fairest justice system that I’ve ever practiced in.

And that may sound confusing. I actually get some looks of ‘I don’t know about that.’ But let me tell you why.

Military judges are not just picked out at random, they’re not voted in. A military judge is somebody who has done, in most instances, both federal – excuse me – acted as a prosecutor and as a defense counsel for a period of time. They’ve seen both sides. Also, that person usually has taken on the role of the chief of military justice, which would be the equivalent of a D.A. [District Attorney], or a senior defense counsel. And so, from that perspective, you’d have a lot of experience.

Once a judge becomes a judge, usually that person is a Lieutenant Colonel or a Colonel. People who go that route are not interested in becoming Generals. And so you’ve kind of tapped out at the top of where you’d want to be. So there is no influence issue and you have somebody there that is truly experienced, who truly understands the law.

And from my perspective, I would take a judge who knows the law and is every experienced over many of the judges I’ve practiced in state and federal.

And then from a panel standpoint, if you go with a panel, almost everybody in the military, once they have obtained a certain rank, has some sort of college degree and I think that in and of itself kind of speaks volumes about a person’s ability to at least have an open mind on certain topics.

And so we normally refer to military panels as blue ribbon panels. They represent, in many cases, individuals with at least a Bachelor’s, if not, a Master’s or Doctorate degree. And so that may be surprising to some but again, the panels that I practice in front of have always been fair panels. I might not have agreed with their outcome, but I do believe they took their jobs seriously.

With regards to state juries I’ve practiced in front of, it’s not always the case that you get an open-minded jury.

So again for those who look to this and say, ‘I wish you were in some other venue’, I can tell you that Bradley is in the best venue possible for him.

Question: How do you find that outsiders of either military service or civilian life generally perceive the other?

David Coombs: Well, I think I might have answered that question. I can tell you that if you do, in fact, look at the rights – and this is more when I taught military law to non-military attorneys – we would compare the various rights that you have in a state or federal court against the rights that you have in a military court. And in every instance, the military court rights exceed that that you would have as a normal citizen in state or federal court.

So I think this is an issue in which a lot of times the suspicion, once you’re informed, doesn’t bear out. You start to believe that, you know, this is a very fair system.

The suspicion, though, I think of the military justice system is because in some regards it’s foreign, obviously. But never forget that the military is made up of basically our sons and daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers – just like yourself.

And it is a – in my mind, it’s not a perfect system, but it is one of the best systems that I’ve had the opportunity to practice in front of.

Question: What do you take with you most from your military service and your time in civilian life?

David Coombs: I think military service – I can tell you a little background story about me.

I was on active duty as a Major. I just went through a course that would have ultimately put me on the track of Lieutenant Colonel and then taking the bench as a military judge.

And then I met my lovely wife, who – we met at a new law professors conference. Not the – kind of a geeky way of meeting your spouse. But we met there and she changed my priorities. And she’s a law professor so, at least in our family, she is the smartest one, and I know that.

And so what we ultimately decided was I would hitch my cart to her and that’s what I did and that’s why I got out of the military at least from the active duty standpoint.

And when I got out, it was probably one of the worst time you can go out on the job market and so I couldn’t find a job. Even though I got towards the last rounds of job interviews, I was never selected. I was in an area where I didn’t know people and that’s pretty much how you can find a job by being known.

So I decided to hang out my own shingle and go into state and federal practice and ultimately start my military practice.

And what I’ll tell you that what I take to the military practice and what I think helps serve me well and my clients is a lot of the people that I see in the military are former students of mine when I taught or they’ve come up through the ranks with me and I know them. And so at least in that system, you have the ability to sit down at a table with somebody and have a little bit of experience about them and know them and be able to talk to them and hopefully obtain positive outcomes for clients.

But for me now, going into this case, obviously this has been a 2-year in the making case.

And the people that I’m working against – some of them are former students. The relationship that we have, obviously, in this case are adversarial but I can tell that – and you see it in the court room – they’re working hard for their side and they believe in what they’re doing.

I think what I bring most into this situation is I have a familiarity with the system and the terminology. If anyone sits in the court room, you hear a lot of acronyms, you hear a lot of phrases that if you weren’t a military attorney, that would be very difficult to even follow the conversation, let alone represent your client in a zealous manner.

So I think that’s the experience I bring. It’s not only being known, but also just being familiar with the system.

Question: Can you explain what’s going on with the change of dates? His trial has changed from starting on February 4 to March 16. Why is that?

David Coombs: The trial date has moved a couple of times to the right, and a lot of times that’s due to motions that are being argued. Some of the motions are unplanned and they become issues only when we see, you know, a particular piece of evidence.

In this instance, we’ve got some issues that we’re litigating that if the defense receives a particular ruling will require a delay in the proceedings – some about 2 weeks. If we don’t receive that ruling, then the calendar will move back to left a couple of weeks.

So in this instance, it’s all driven really by a few of the motions. Although as I started my speech in my remarks here today, we’re nearing the end of the motions phase and we really are transferring towards the trial phase at this point.

Question: One of the charges is aiding the enemy. How grave a threat do you think that charge is to the press and to whistleblowers in the age of the Internet?

David Coombs: Yeah, I’ll remove it from this case. So I will just say that this is why I think it’s a very important case for everybody because if you look at the offense of aiding the enemy, and take it out of this case and simply say if you can possibly aid the enemy by giving information to the press with no intent that that information land in the hands of the enemy and by that mere action alone you could be found to have aided the enemy, that’s a scary proposition. Right there that would silence a lot of critics of our government and that’s what makes our government great in that we foster that criticism. And oftentimes, when it’s deserved, we make changes.

So this is a serious offense, not only for my client but I think for anybody in America to be paying attention to what it means to aide the enemy.

So again, I think it’s something that hopefully means something more than just giving information to the press.

Question: Bradley Manning stated last week that he didn’t want his case tried in the press. Does he and do you feel that the public and the press have accurately represented what’s happened?

David Coombs: I’ll just answer that from my perspective.

And as I said to begin with, this public appearance is the exception. I believe that trying a case in the press is not the way to do representation of a client.

And Brad, at least from what he testified in the open hearing, didn’t want his case to be tried in the press either.

Because of what he wished early on but also because of my perspective is you shouldn’t try your case in the press, I respected his wishes and I didn’t grant interviews.

And even after this day, I won’t be granting interviews. And the reason why again is because your focus has to be on your client and not on, you know, basically putting out facts to spin something your way in the press when that doesn’t achieve anything in the court room.

When you’re in the court room, that’s what matters. What happens there matters.

In the press, as I said earlier today, what really matters is you the public being involved in being informed. And the press can do wonderful things and that’s why I’m happy to see them here today. And that’s what really resulted in Brad being moved, in my opinion, from Quantico to Fort Leavenworth.

Question: Are you and your client able to communicate freely on a privileged basis?

David Coombs: Yes. Brad and I speak at least once a week, if not more. And obviously, we see each other quite often as well. Our communications are always privileged. They’re never subject to any sort of reporting or monitored by anyone.

And so because of that, I act basically as kind of a conduit for Brad, giving him information and helping him stay in touch. And so those communications are not monitored.

Question: Do you feel the judge has so far been fair to your client and does Bradley Manning feel that way as well?

David Coombs: Well, I can’t – that’s a loaded question there. But I will – yeah no I won’t say that. But I would say is this that when I look up to the bench and I see a judge that knows the law, that is always prepared, that seems to be two steps ahead counsel, then I am comforted by that. And for me, at least, that makes me work harder, that makes me fear being in a court room and not being prepared. And so in this case, I would say we have a judge who’s exactly like that. To the extent that Michael saw some good advocacy in the court room, I can tell you that was because I would not want to see the judge look at me in a way that says, ‘How dare you come into my court room and not be prepared?’ And so here, I’m very happy with the judge that we have and her knowledge and expertise.


Learn More: