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Obama comment unlikely to affect outcome of Bradley Manning trial

From NBC's Pete Williams
Experts on the military justice system agree that President Obama was unwise to make a comment last week about Army Private Bradley Manning, accused of giving classified US government documents to Wikileaks. But they disagree about whether the statement will undermine the military's prosecution of Manning.

After a fundraising event in San Francisco last Thursday, the president was approached about the Manning case, an encounter recorded on cellphone video and uploaded to the Internet. After explaining that federal law prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents, Mr. Obama said, "He broke the law."

Presidents and other senior officials often make statements about the guilt of defendants who are awaiting trial before a jury. What's different about this case, however, is that President Obama is the commander-in-chief of the military, and Manning will be tried before a military court.

Rules for courts martial ban the exertion of "undue command influence." Many supporters of Pvt. Manning have argued that his trial is now tainted because the president, the nation's most senior commander, has pronounced judgment that Manning is guilty. 

In an op-ed appearing in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, a former military prosecutor says many critics of the court-martial system often believe that military jurors simply ask themselves one question, referring to their commanders: what does the Old Man want us to do?

"When the jurors retire to the deliberation room at the Manning court martial, they will not have to speculate on the answer; arguably the most important 'Old Man' of them all has spoken, and he said Manning is guilty," writes Morris Davis, a retired Air Force officer and former prosecutor at Guantanamo.

The president should have been more circumspect, agrees Eugene Fidell, an expert on the military justice system. But he believes Obama's comment will not affect the outcome of Manning's trial.

"It will generate motions by the defense and will require some care in selecting the military members of the jury, a process already complicated by the extensive press coverage of this case," Fidell said. "It was going to have to be a very careful questioning process for potential jurors, to ask if they have seen reports or read about the case. Now they'll also have to be asked whether they heard the president's comment and if that would make any difference to them. But that will be the extent of it, and they'll get on with the trial."