WASHINGTON -- Three years ago the transparency website WikiLeaks released a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter gunning down Reuters journalists on a Baghdad street.
It was just one chilling public revelation from a cache of 700,000 documents a young Army private first class named Bradley Manning gave the site. Soon after would follow sobering field reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and candid diplomatic cables from the U.S. Department of State.
To Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Manning is "an embodiment of what sort of person I would like to be." An activist as well as a politician, she helped edit the so-called "Collateral Murder" gun cam video.
"I would like to have the same courage, the same sense of justice, the same integrity as Bradley Manning," she said. "He in my opinion is in the exact category as [Pentagon Papers whistle-blower] Daniel Ellsberg and other fighters for freedom of expression."
On Monday, Manning's trial begins. The 25-year-old faces life in prison for his leaks. The potential implications of the proceedings on this sprawling military base outside Washington, D.C. go far beyond his fate alone.
The most serious charge the government has laid against Manning is aiding the enemy. The charge rests on the novel legal theory that Manning should have known that his disclosures could wind up in the hands of Osama bin Laden -- as they apparently did.
In a cruel twist, then, Manning's decision to release the files that included the video of Reuters journalists being killed threatens to criminalize both journalism and whistle-blowing.
"The case is a sledgehammer," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told HuffPost last week. "It is there to try and terrorize anyone else into being a force for the media, by trying to terrorize this young man."
Manning's road to trial began on May 29, 2010, when he was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq. He was eventually transferred to a Marine brig in Quantico, Va, where he was held for nine months.
Forced to strip naked at night, kept in solitary confinement under the unrelenting glare of guards because they alleged he was a suicide risk, some have described Manning's treatment at Quantico as similar to that of detainees at Guantanamo. It sparked an international outcry.
Col. Denise Lind, the military judge overseeing the case, ruled in January that the military's treatment of Manning in pretrial detention was "excessive" and gave him 112 days credit off any eventual prison sentence.
PJ Crowley, the former State Department spokesman who was forced to resign after he decried Manning's treatment, has warned the trial threatens to once again turn him into a martyr. But he has no respect for what the soldier did.
"Bradley Manning's responsibility as a member of the military was to protect the national interest," he said. "It was not Bradley Manning's job to define the national interest."
In other pretrial rulings, Lind has also held that the government must prove that Manning had reason to believe that his disclosures could have harmed the United States. On the controversial aiding the enemy charge, she has ruled that the government will have to show "that the accused had to know he was dealing, directly or indirectly, with an enemy of the United States."
"I think it will be hard to prove," David Frakt, a visiting professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Law, wrote in an email. He believes Manning may be able to beat the aiding the enemy charge.
If he can't, press freedom advocates have warned, the ability of other news organizations to report on classified information may be in jeopardy. The case is now occurring in the context of the subpoenas issued for Associated Press and Fox News phone records. Government prosecutors have said they would have charged Manning no differently if he had leaked directly to The New York Times.
"If successful, the prosecution will establish a chilling precedent: national security leaks may subject the leakers to a capital prosecution or at least life imprisonment," lawyers Floyd Abrams and Yochai Benkler wrote in The New York Times in March. "Anyone who holds freedom of the press dear should shudder at the threat that the prosecution’s theory presents to journalists, their sources and the public that relies on them."
The case has already been marred by public access problems: Lind and the military have kept transcripts, motions and rulings in the case secret. A coalition of activists and journalists is suing to open up access to records in the trial.
In response to the government's charges, Manning's lawyer David Coombs will likely argue that his client thought of himself as a whistle-blower. In his February plea statement, Manning said he wanted to "spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan."
But that kind of argument may only go so far with Lind, who under military law has wide latitude to impose whatever sentence she deems appropriate. Manning has chosen to eschew a jury trial, likely to avoid the added uncertainty it could bring, said military justice expert Eugene R. Fidell.
"He's going to be sentenced by an Army colonel, and his sentence is going to be reviewed by an army major general," Fidell said. "This is not a laughing matter for them."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.