The long-awaited military trial of US Army Private Bradley Manning got under way in Fort Meade, Maryland, on Monday, with prosecutors accusing the US soldier of helping al-Qaeda by funneling a horde of secret files to WikiLeaks.
The 25-year-old faces a possible 154-year jail sentence for his role in the biggest leak of classified information in the US’ history, when a vast cache of information was passed to the Web site.
In his first statements at the court-martial at a US military base outside Washington, Manning confirmed he pleads guilty to 10 charges against him, but not the most serious one — aiding the enemy, chiefly al-Qaeda — which could see him spend the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors say that from November 2009 until his arrest in May 2010, Manning gave WikiLeaks about 700,000 classified military logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic cables from around the world.
Opening the case for the prosecution, US Army Captain Joe Morrow said Manning had passed on information to WikiLeaks despite knowing it would be used by former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his terror network.
Morrow said Manning — who chose a trial before military Judge Army Colonel Denise Lind rather than by jury — had begun feeding information to WikiLeaks less than two weeks after starting his deployment to Iraq in 2009.
Searches of Manning’s computer following his arrest in 2010 proved the soldier was aware of the “consequences of his actions,” Morrow added.
“The evidence will show... the accused knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy,” Morrow said.
“He knew al-Qaeda used WikiLeaks,” he said, adding that bin Laden was known to scour classified US reports from Afghanistan.
Morrow said Manning was in regular contact with WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange — currently holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden — to determine the most valuable information.
He also provided WikiLeaks with the e-mail addresses of more than 74,000 service members in Iraq, including, names, ranks and positions, Morrow said.
In one period, Manning had “systematically harvested” more than 250,000 US Department of State cables released by WikiLeaks.
The court later heard testimony from one of Manning’s roommates in Iraq, Eric Baker, who said the young soldier had spent all his spare time on his computer.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, launched an impassioned defense of the soldier, painting a portrait of someone who had been “young, naive and good-intentioned” who was grappling with a moral crisis after arriving in Iraq.
The then-22-year-old Manning had been traumatized after witnessing a civilian car destroyed in a roadside bombing on Christmas Eve in 2009.
“He couldn’t forget about the lives and the families on this Christmas Eve. At this moment, he started struggling,” Coombs said.
Manning was a “humanist” who began leaking information out of a desire to “make this world a better place,” Coombs added.
It was in this context that Manning leaked a video that showed a US combat helicopter shooting at Iraqi civilians in July 2007. The soldier also transmitted a confidential video of a US air strike on the Afghan village of Granai, where more than 100 civilians died in May 2009.
Manning was also battling a “very private struggle with his gender,” the lawyer said.