Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence analyst accused of leaking thousands of classified documents to the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, made his first court appearance on Friday. Manning has been in custody since May 2010.
AFP - The US soldier accused of giving classified documents to WikiLeaks made his first appearance in court on Friday as his lawyers made an unsuccessful attempt to get the presiding officer to step down.
Private Bradley Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst, is suspected of downloading 260,000 US diplomatic cables, videos of US air strikes and US military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq and providing them to WikiLeaks.
Manning, dressed in a green camouflage uniform and wearing thick black glasses, appeared calm as he sat at the defense table, fiddling with a pen, jotting down notes and chatting with his civilian and military attorneys.
The pre-trial hearing at Fort Meade, headquarters of the top secret National Security Agency (NSA), opened with the investigating officer reading the charges against Manning and asking whether he understood them.
"Yes, sir," Manning replied.
Manning, who was arrested 18 months ago while serving in Iraq, is potentially facing the rest of his life in prison if convicted of what has been called one of the most serious intelligence breaches in US history.
Manning's civilian defense lawyer, David Coombs, went on the offensive shortly after the hearing began, calling for the investigating officer, Paul Almanza, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army reserves, to recuse himself from the case.
Coombs had questioned whether Almanza, who is on leave from his job as an attorney with the Department of Justice, could be impartial while the US authorities are seeking to bring a case against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
But Almanza said he was not involved in any probe of WikiLeaks or Manning with the Justice Department. After consulting his legal adviser, he rejected the request and said he was able to rule impartially.
"I thus deny the defense request that I recuse myself as the investigating officer in this hearing," Almanza said.
Manning's lawyers can appeal Almanza's decision not to step aside but the hearing to determine whether Manning should face a court-martial for will continue in the meantime.
Coombs argued Almanza had rejected most of the witnesses requested by the defense -- which had included US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former defense secretary Robert Gates -- and that was evidence of bias.
The defense lawyer also said Almanza had rejected a defense request that portions of the hearing that could potentially "taint" Manning be closed to the public and media.
Besides Coombs, Manning is represented by two military-appointed lawyers at the hearing, which is being attended by dozens of members of the public and media from around the world.
Manning could face life in prison if convicted of aiding the enemy, the most serious of the 22 charges he is facing. Aiding the enemy is a capital offense but the military has declined to seek the death penalty.
Anti-war activists see Manning as a hero and his supporters, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, are holding vigils and rallies outside the gates of Fort Meade during the hearing.
In instant message chats with Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker who turned him over to the US authorities, Manning expressed hope that the material he released would trigger "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms."
"I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public," Manning said in the chat logs in which he used the handle "bradass87."
The US government, however, has denounced the document dump as a "criminal" act which endangered national security and foreign policy.
Assange, under house arrest in Britain awaiting potential extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, has denied knowing the source of the leaks, but has defended Manning as a victim of US government mistreatment and raised funds for his defense.
On Friday, Assange was granted permission to appeal his extradition and a hearing will start on February 1.
Date created : 2011-12-16