Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of turning over a trove of classified US documents to WikiLeaks, was to make his first appearance in court yesterday to determine whether he should be tried on charges which could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
The former intelligence analyst, who turns 24 today, was scheduled to attend a preliminary hearing starting at 9am at the headquarters of the top secret US National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.
The so-called “Article 32 hearing,” which could last up to a week, is being held to decide whether Manning, who has been in US military custody for more than 18 months, should face a formal court-martial.
Manning is accused of downloading 260,000 US diplomatic cables, videos of US air strikes and US military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq between November 2009 and May last year, while serving in Iraq and transferring them to WikiLeaks.
In instant message chats with Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker who turned him over to the authorities, Manning said the material “belongs in the public domain” and its release would hopefully 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 published by Wired.com in which Manning used the handle “bradass87.”
Such statements have made Manning a hero to anti-war activists and his supporters, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, plan to hold vigils and rallies outside the gates of Fort Meade during the hearing.
The US government, however, denounced the document dump, one of the worst intelligence breaches in US history, as a “criminal” move which endangered national security and foreign policy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking on Thursday on the eve of Manning’s hearing, said it was a “very unfortunate and damaging action ... that put at risk individuals and relationships.”
Manning is facing a string of charges, the most serious being aiding the enemy, which could land him life in prison. Aiding the enemy can be a capital offense, but the military has said it would not seek the death penalty.
Other charges include “wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet,” violating military security regulations, computer fraud and theft of public property and records.
Manning was arrested on May 26 last year and has been in US military custody since then in Kuwait, at a US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
According to Manning’s lead counsel, David Coombs, the hearing opening would provide the defense with an opportunity to “test the relative strengths and weaknesses of the government’s case.”
Coombs requested the appearance of 48 witnesses at the hearing, including Clinton, former US defense secretary Robert Gates and US President Barack Obama, but the demand was rejected and the list of witnesses cut to 10.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian 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.