FORT MEADE, Md. - His baby face aged by 19 months in detention, the young soldier blamed for the largest leak of classified material in American history appeared Friday for the first time in public at the start of a court-martial hearing that may hinge on whether the U.S. government overzealously stamped "secret" on material posing no national security risk.
But the long-delayed military court case against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the accused source for the WikiLeaks website's trove of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets, got sidetracked by legal wrangling as soon as it began. The presiding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, rejected a defense request that he step aside because of alleged bias. He then refused to suspend the hearing while an Army appellate process weighed an appeal.
Manning, appearing slight but serious in his Army camouflage fatigues and dark-rimmed glasses, looked on quietly. On the day before his 24th birthday, he took notes during the proceedings at this Army post between Washington and Baltimore, sometimes twirling a pen in his fingers and answering straightforwardly when called upon by Almanza.
"Yes, sir," Manning responded when asked if he understood the charges against him.
"No, sir," he said when questioned if he had any questions about them.
The prosecution will begin presenting its case Saturday.
Manning, a one-time intelligence analyst stationed in Baghdad, is accused of leaking material that included hundreds of thousands of sensitive items: Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a classified military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The Obama administration says the released information threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America's relations with other governments.
But Manning's defense will argue that much of the information posed no risk. In addition to the question of bias, his lawyer argued that Almanza wrongly denied a defense request to call as witnesses the "original classification authorities" who decided to mark as secret the material WikiLeaks published. Instead, Almanza accepted unsworn statements from those people, Manning attorney David Coombs said.
"Let's put witnesses on the stand," Coombs said. "Why is this stuff classified? Why is it going to cause harm?"
Procedural maneuvering dominated the start to what already was an arcane military justice process. The hearing in Fort Meade was open to the public, with limited seating, and no civilian recording equipment was allowed. Instead of a judge, a presiding officer will deliver a recommendation whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial. A military commander then makes the final decision.
The tangling centered on whether Almanza, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, is biased because of his civilian job as a Justice Department prosecutor. "I don't believe I'm biased," Almanza said, explaining that his government work concerns child exploitation and obscenity. He said he hasn't talked about WikiLeaks or Manning with anyone in the Justice Department or FBI.
Coombs said he'd ask the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to intervene. It was unclear when the court would decide whether to hear the appeal.
The bias charge reflects the Justice Department's separate criminal investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, and WikiLeaks is straining under an American financial embargo. Assange is in Britain fighting a Swedish request that he be extradited because of rape allegations.
The fates of Manning and Assange may be intertwined, but they have been living under dramatically different circumstances. The Australian-born WikiLeaks chief has been waging his case from a wealthy supporter's country estate in southeastern England; Manning has been detained since May 2010 and spent eight months at a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., confined alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.
Earlier this year, the Army sent him to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Military officials declined to say Friday where they were holding Manning during the trial.
The case has spawned an international support network of people who believe the U.S. government has gone too far in seeking to punish Manning, a native of Crescent, Okla., who was a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Manning's supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organizing a rally for Saturday. At midday Friday, about 50 protesters assembled outside the Army post's main entrance and a few dozen marched down an adjoining road carrying orange signs that read, "The Bradley Manning Support Network."
The Army filed formal charges against him in March, accusing him of using unauthorized software on government computers to extract classified information, illegally download it and transmit the data for public release by what the Army termed "the enemy."
WikiLeaks released some 77,000 military records on the war in Afghanistan in July 2010, creating a sensational international media splash and publicizing some unflattering assessments of the U.S military effort.
The overall effect was muted, however, and an October 2010 batch of nearly 400,000 documents written mostly by low-ranking officers in the field provided little more than a catalogue of thousands of battles with insurgents and roadside bomb attacks, plus equipment failures and shootings by civilian contractors dating back to 2004.
A month later, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of State Department documents, including candid comments from world leaders.
Almanza is likely to make his recommendation on whether to court-martial Manning within eight days of the hearing's completion, a U.S. military legal expert told reporters. The hearing is expected to last through the weekend and possibly well into next week.
The final decision on a court-martial lies with Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington. Linnington could choose other courses, including an administrative punishment or dismissing some or all of the charges.