The Bradley Manning trial began this week, and it is being held largely in secret—according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied for access were denied. Major outlets like Reuters, the AP, and the Guardian, were forced to sign a document stating they would withhold certain information in exchange for the privilege of attending.
Oh, and no video or audio recorders allowed. And no official transcripts will be made available to anyone.
But, the court evidently couldn't find grounds to boot out FPF's crowd-funded stenographers, who will be providing the only publicly available transcripts of the trial. (You can donate to the effort and read the transcripts here.)
Which is good news for journalists and anyone looking for an accurate—and public—record of the trial. But the fact that a volunteer stenographer is providing the only comprehensive source of information about such a monumental event is pretty absurd.
The disclaimer that precedes each transcript epitomizes said absurdity. It reads: "This transcript was made by a court reporter who ... was not permitted to be in the actual courtroom where the proceedings took place, but in a media room listening to and watching live audio/video feed, not permitted to make an audio backup recording for editing purposes, and not having the ability to control the proceedings in order to produce an accurate verbatim transcript."
In other words, it's a lone court reporter, frantically trying to tap out all the details down, technologically unaided, sequestered in a separate room, in one uninterrupted marathon session. And this will be the definitive record of the trial for public consumption. What's the logic behind this, now? Why allow an outside stenographer but not an audio recorder? Does the court just assume that no one will pay attention to the typed product? Or are they hoping to point to the reporter's fallibility in the instance that something embarrassing to the state is revealed?
Who knows. But this event's contradictory nature is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the whole Manning affair. As Phillip Bump puts it over at the Atlantic Wire, the
"Manning trial may end up being a critical placemark in Obama's presidency: a secret trial for the leak of classified documents related to a war that was the centerpiece of the 2008 campaign ... And for months, as its top officials try to make the case that it wants to ensure robust protections for the media in leak investigations, the United States will simultaneously be arguing that a 25-year-old Army private deserves life in prison for releasing files he meant to help al Qaeda win the war on terror."
Remember, all of this is transpiring during a presidential term that was supposed to be the most transparent in history. Obama repeatedly boasted that the once-secret wheelings and dealings of federal agencies, congressmen, lobbyists—and, ostensibly, the military—would be revealed to all. He'd utilize the latest technology to open up those cloistered proceedings.
Yet five years into this newfangled era of transparent government, a pro-free press nonprofit has to fight tooth and nail merely to be allowed to bring a steno machine into the vicinity of a military trial. Where, we might add, a young man stands to spend the rest of his life in prison for making transparent the wrongdoing that occurred throughout a war the president himself considered illegitimate. Now that's absurd.