Wikileaks trial begins; Prosecutor says Manning dumped info into enemy hands

Patrick Semansky, AP
Bradley Manning DAVID DISHNEAU and PAULINE JELINEK [ap]

FORT MEADE, Md. — U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning faced life in prison as his trial began Monday, three years after he was charged with providing reams of highly-sensitive material to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history.

Manning, a 25-year-old former intelligence analyst, has admitted to giving troves of information to WikiLeaks, but military prosecutors want to prove Manning aided the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. They said they will present evidence that former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden asked for and received information WikiLeaks published.

Patrick Semansky, AP
Bradley Manning

“This is a case of about what happens when arrogance meets access to sensitive information,” Capt. Joe Morrow said in his opening statement.

Manning’s supporters hail him as a whistleblowing hero and political prisoner. Others say he is a traitor who endangered lives and national security.

“This, your honor, this is a case about a soldier who systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of documents from classified databases and then dumped that information on to the Internet into the hands of the enemy,” Morrow said.

Defense attorney David Coombs said Manning was “young, naive, but good-intentioned.” Coombs said Manning selectively leaked material he believed could make the world a better place, mentioning an unclassified video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack that killed civilians, including a Reuters photographer.

“He believed this information showed how we value human life. He was troubled by that. He believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled,” Coombs said.

Manning has said he did not believe the information would harm the U.S. Coombs did not address whether bin Laden ever saw any of the material Manning leaked.

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In his dress blue uniform and wire-rimmed eye glasses, the slightly built Manning followed a slide sh ow of the prosecutor’s hour-long opening statement, watching on a laptop computer at the defense table. The slide show also was projected on three larger screens in the small court room, which only had seating for about 50 people.

Later, almost motionless, the soldier sat forward in his chair, looking toward Coombs throughout the defense attorney’s 25-minute opening statement.

Coombs said Manning struggled to do the right thing as “a humanist,” a word engraved on his custom-made dog tags. As an analyst in Baghdad, Manning had access to hundreds of millions of documents but selectively leaked material, Coombs said. He mentioned an unclassified video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack that mistakenly killed civilians, including a Reuters photographer.

“He believed this information showed how we value human life. He was troubled by that. He believed that if the American public saw it, they too would be troubled,” Coombs said.

Coombs did not address whether bin Laden ever saw any of the material. The soldier has said he did not believe the information would harm the U.S.

Coombs said Manning struggled privately with gender identity early in his tour of duty, when gays couldn’t openly serve in the military.

“His struggles led him to feel that he needed to do something to make a difference in this world,” Coombs said. “He needed to do something to help improve what he was seeing.”

The judge accepted his guilty plea to reduced charges for about half of the alleged offenses, but prosecutors did not did not and moved forward with a court-martial on charges including violations of the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

About 20 Manning supporters demonstrated in the rain outside the visitor gate at Fort Meade. They waved signs reading “free Bradley Manning” and “protect the truth” while chanting “What do want? Free Bradley. When do we want it? Now.”

U.S. officials have said the mo re than 700,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports and State Department cables sent to WikiLeaks endangered lives and national security.

The material WikiLeaks began publishing in 2010 documented complaints of Iraqi detainee abuses; a U.S. tally of civilian deaths in Iraq; and America’s weak support for the government of Tunisia – a disclosure Manning supporters said encouraged the popular uprising that ousted the Tunisian president in 2011 and helped trigger the Middle Eastern pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

Last month, the government agreed to accept Manning’s guilty plea for a lesser version of one count, involving a single diplomatic cable summarizing U.S. embassy discussions with Icelandic officials about the country’s financial troubles.

Manning also acknowledged sending WikiLeaks unclassified video of a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter attack that killed civilians, including a Reuters photographer. An internal military investigatio n concluded the troops reasonably mistook the camera equipment for weapons; WikiLeaks dubbed the video “Collateral Murder.”

The release of the cables and video embarrassed the U.S. and its allies. The Obama administration has said it threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America’s relations with other governments, but the specific amount of damage hasn’t been publicly revealed and probably won’t be during the trial.

Lind ruled the extent of any damage is irrelevant. Defense attorney David Coombs contends it was minimal.

Much of the evidence is classified, which means large portions of the trial are likely to be closed to reporters and the public.

The court-martial’s high degree of secrecy, including refusals to promptly release even routine filings and rulings, has fueled protests by Manning supporters. The Bradley Manning Support Network says it has raised more than $1.1 million for his defense and public outreach.

Su pporters include documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, musician Graham Nash, actor John Cusack and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg.

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