Army Pfc. Manning to face pretrial hearing in WikiLeaks case


People leaving St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Nov. 24 look at a protest in support of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, an imprisoned soldier accused of leaking classified material. (OLIVIA HARRIS/REUTERS)

Not long after allegedly passing a massive trove of U.S. government secrets to WikiLeaks, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning told an acquaintance on an Internet chat that he just wanted “people to see the truth,” to prompt “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms” over war and foreign policy.

“We’re human . . . and we’re killing ourselves . . . and no-one seems to see that . . . and it bothers me,” he typed to Adrian Lamo, a convicted computer hacker whom Manning appeared to consider a kindred spirit, in May 2010.

Instead, Lamo contacted authorities with suspicions that Manning, an intelligence analyst with a top-secret clearance, had committed one of the largest national security breaches in U.S. history.

These exchanges between Lamo and Manning, a baby-faced tech savant who joined the Army in a bid to turn around a troubled life, could be among the key evidence in a pretrial hearing starting Friday at a Military District of Washington courtroom at Fort Meade. Investigators also have forensic evidence from computers used by Manning and data from the WikiLeaks Web site.

Manning, who turns 24 Saturday, has been accused of aiding the enemy, violating the Espionage Act and several lesser charges — enough to send him away for life. Aiding the enemy carries a potential death sentence, but Army officials have said they will not seek it. At the Article 32 hearing, which is likely to last for several days, an investigating officer will determine whether the prosecution has enough evidence to send Manning to trial. It will be up to a convening authority whether to refer the case to a court-martial.

The case centers on hundreds of thousands of government documents that Manning allegedly provided to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that later released them. About 100 news organizations have requested credentials to the hearing. Busloads of Manning supporters are expected to arrive to stage demonstrations.

This will be Manning’s first public appearance since he was removed from his job at a forward operating base in Baghdad in May 2010 and jailed. At the hearing, his attorney can call witnesses and cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses. Manning is unlikely to speak, legal experts said.

“He’s considered a hero by some because of the information he’s released, but the military and the administration have to treat this seriously because of the apparent fact that he released classified information,” said David Velloney, a Regent University law professor and former Army lawyer.

The most serious charges require proving intent. Aiding the enemy will be the most difficult, requiring prosecutors to show that “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that he knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy. Relying on the chat logs alone probably will not suffice, said Michael J. Navarre, a military law expert and former lieutenant commander in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

“In the chat logs there’s no specific reference to aiding foreign enemies,” he said. “The only references are to his desire to have this information out in the public domain.”

Moreover, references to his supposedly altruistic motivations potentially undercut the allegation that he wanted to aid the enemy, Navarre said.

The second-most-serious charge, violating the Espionage Act, requires showing that Manning had reason to believe that the information disclosed could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation. At one point in the chats, Manning said that “another state would just take advantage of the information . . . try and get some edge,” which prosecutors might highlight to show he knew the data could be used to another country’s advantage, Navarre said.

The extensive chat logs between Manning and Lamo, who had been convicted of felony charges for hacking into corporate computers, have been authenticated by Army investigators, according to an intelligence official familiar with the case. Prosecutors are also likely to have chat logs between Manning and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks co-founder, said a former official familiar with the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Assange attracted immense publicity with each disclosure of material allegedly provided by Manning: military video footage recorded from an Army helicopter as it shot at suspected insurgents in Baghdad and killed civilians in the process, raw military field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, a database of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, many of them classified.

David E. Coombs, Manning’s civilian lawyer, has signaled that he will argue that the information disclosed did little damage to national security — an effort to counter the Espionage Act charges.

But the former official said a preliminary damage assessment by the intelligence community concluded that leaks had resulted in “serious” harm to foreign relations.

Before Lamo handed over his computers to investigators, he gave a copy of the chat logs to Wired.com, which released the full set in July. The logs capture moments of irony and even humor. They also reflect Manning’s troubled upbringing by alcoholic parents, his difficulty in getting along with military colleagues and a struggle with his gender identity.

But personal issues probably will not bear on the charges, experts said, although they might be considered mitigating factors in sentencing. And although he is heralded as a whistleblower by supporters, statutory whistleblower protections do not apply to public disclosure of classified information.

Lamo said he is prepared to be called as a witness and expects the defense to try to dent his credibility by raising questions about his criminal record and character. “Things are not going to be flattering, but I’m going to be forthright,” he said.

Although he approved of the leak of the Army video, Lamo said he felt the other disclosures crossed a line. “I do not consider Bradley Manning an ordinary decent criminal,” Lamo said. “He engaged in an act that was inimical to the state.”

The chat logs, which lasted about five days in late May 2010, revealed a young man wrestling with his identity and purpose. At one point toward the end of their chats, Lamo asked Manning, “What’s your greatest fear?”

Manning replied: “Dying without ever truly living.”

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