FORT MEADE, Md. — A weeklong hearing to determine whether Army Pfc. Bradley Manning should face charges of illegally releasing thousands of classified U.S. military documents opened Friday with the defense questioning the presiding officer's objectivity.
No witnesses were called on the first day of what's expected to be an eight-day preliminary hearing in a closely watched case. Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, is facing charges including espionage — which carries a life sentence — for releasing to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and at least two videos that marked one of the largest security breaches in U.S. history.
The presiding officer in the military hearing, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, a U.S. Army Reservist, rejected Manning's attorney's argument that he should recuse himself because of his work as a former prosecutor for the Justice Department, which is conducting its own investigation of Manning. The prosecution backed Almanza's argument that he could be impartial.
The evidentiary hearing, known as an Article 32 hearing, is scheduled to resume Saturday morning.
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Making his first court appearance, Manning sat unemotionally behind the defense table wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a combat patch from the 10th Mountain Division on his Army uniform. He stared ahead, not glancing at the row of supporters sitting behind him and his defense team, which includes two military lawyers. After 19 months in military custody at Fort Leavenworth, Kan, he appeared thin but healthy.
Asked by Almanza if he had the charging documents in front of him, Manning, who had not been heard from since his arrest in May 2010, said, "Yes, sir, I do."
Court documents indicate that the defense will argue that Manning's commanders ignored warnings that the former Army intelligence analyst had mental health issues and that the command structure where he was stationed in Baghdad had collapsed. That allowed Manning to download thousands of classified documents, which he reportedly stored on CDs that he labeled as Lady Gaga music — and ended up posted online by WikiLeaks.
Manning's civilian attorney, David Coombs, argued that Almanza purposely delayed the hearing in the hope that a national security incident would occur that prosecutors could pin on Manning's release of the documents. The documents included hundreds of thousands of secret State Department cables and military reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Arguing that the leak hasn't directly jeopardized U.S. national security, Coombs asked, “Where is the damage? Where is the harm?”
Coombs also argued that the fact that Almanza approved all 20 of the government’s witnesses — and only about a dozen of 48 offered by the defense — demonstrated bias against Manning. The defense said it would appeal Almanza's decision to stay on as investigating officer.
An Article 32 hearing is similar to a grand jury hearing, except that the defendant can be present and can cross-examine witnesses. The investigating officer acts as both a judge and grand jury do in criminal trials, and not only determines whether the case goes forward but what the charges should be.
The hearing was taking place under tight security. The Army has placed strict restrictions on reporters covering the trial, limiting Internet access and forbidding recordings.
Protesters, many supporting Manning, were gathered outside a military courthouse at Fort Meade. Inside the courtroom was a mixture of leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, peace activists, government lawyers and members of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's legal team.
Edward T. Hall III, 25, one of the founding members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and several of his supporters sat in the seats behind Manning.
Manning "sent ripples of truth around the world an those created tsunamis of movements," Hall said in an interview. "He empowered us."
Immediately after the proceedings adjourned Friday, one man walking out of the courtroom yelled, "Bradley Manning, you are a hero." Manning did not react.
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