Friday, December 16, 2011

Pretrial Begins For Alleged Document Leaker to WikiLeaks

By Elaine Sanchez, American Forces Press Service

FORT MEADE, Md., Dec. 16, 2011 - The Article 32 hearing for the soldier allegedly involved in what's considered one of the largest leaks of classified material in U.S. history got under way in a crowded military courthouse here today.

Pfc. Bradley E. Manning (seen in the above U.S. Army photo), an Army intelligence analyst, is suspected of leaking military and diplomatic documents, including classified records about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, which released thousands of classified military documents on its website last year.

At the time, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior defense officials condemned the organization's actions, claiming the act put deployed service members at an increased risk.

The hearing today marked Manning's first appearance in a military court since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010. An Article 32 hearing, often likened to a civilian grand jury, is a pretrial hearing to determine if there are grounds for a general court martial, the most serious of courts martial.

The soldier, dressed in an Army combat uniform, his hair cut short and with black-rimmed glasses, sat between his civilian lawyer David E. Coombs, and his two military lawyers. The soldier was attentive throughout, eyes forward and his hands clasped or fiddling with a pen, taking notes occasionally. When asked if he understood the charges and if he was satisfied with his representation, he answered "Yes sir" each time in a soft-spoken tone.

The soldier, who turns 24 tomorrow, faces more than 20 charges and a maximum sentence of life in prison if proven guilty. The charges allege Manning introduced unauthorized software onto government computers to extract classified information, unlawfully downloaded it, improperly stored it, and transmitted the data for public release and use by the enemy.

The charge of aiding the enemy under Article 104 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice is a capital offense; however, the prosecution team has said it won't recommend the death penalty, a legal official said today.

First up today was Coombs for defense, who came out swinging. He almost immediately called for Army Reserve Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the hearing's investigating officer, to disqualify himself from the hearing for bias or perception of bias, along with some rulings against the defense. It's the investigating officer's role to consider witnesses' testimony and evidence presented to counsel and to recommend if the case should be referred for trial to general court martial or other courts martial, or be dismissed.

Almanza serves as a reserve military judge as well as the deputy chief of the Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity section. Coombs argued there's a conflict of interest since the Justice Department has an ongoing criminal investigation regarding this case.

The officer, Coombs continued, also allowed all of the government's 20 witnesses and only two of the defense's 38 witnesses, who were not in common with the government. He also argued the fact that the hearing is open, not closed, which can allow prejudicial information to impact the trial. Finally, Almanza is allowing unsworn statements from the prosecution to be considered, he added.

After lengthy recesses and with input from the defense, the government and his legal advisor, Almanza denied the defense's request for a recusal and for a stay, or delay, of proceedings.

Almanza said he doesn't believe that "a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances" of the case would question his impartiality, and stressed that no aspect of his civilian work is involved with or relates to Manning's case.

Almanza then called for another recess to give Manning's defense team time to file a writ, or legal document, to stay the hearing to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, located at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Turning proceedings back to the case at hand, Almanza reviewed Manning's rights with him, ensuring the soldier had a copy of the charge sheet and understood the charges preferred against him.

Almanza also discussed the possibility that classified information may be introduced into the hearing. If classified information needs to be discussed, he explained, a determination will be made to close portions of the hearing as required.

After one final recess, Almanza noted the hearing will reconvene tomorrow at 10 a.m. Manning remains in pretrial confinement.

Manning's Article 32 hearing is expected to continue for several days, possibly up to a week. When the hearing is over, Almanza will file a report recommending either a trial, or that some or all of the charges against Manning be dismissed.

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