U.S. judge won't dismiss key charge against WikiLeaks suspect

FORT MEADE, Maryland Fri Apr 27, 2012 5:53am IST

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FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge refused on Thursday to throw out a charge that Bradley Manning, the U.S. intelligence analyst accused of leaking government files to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, aided the enemy identified as al Qaeda.

The charge, the most serious accusation against Manning, could result in a life prison sentence if he is convicted of it at a court-martial in September.

Manning, 24, is charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of U.S. government cables and field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks in 2010, in the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.

Prosecutors say the leaks helped "al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," one of the militant group's most potent affiliates.

"The defense motion to dismiss ... is denied," military Judge Colonel Denise Lind said in a pretrial hearing.

Manning's attorney, David Coombs, had pressed the court to dismiss the charge. Comparing Manning's actions to that of a soldier speaking to a major newspaper, he argued that without an intent to provide information to the enemy, Manning's actions constituted negligence.

The ruling was another blow for Manning, who made several appeals over three days of pretrial hearings this week to reduce or dismiss all 22 charges against him. Those motions were all rejected.

"The case will go forward. (Manning) will face the full brunt of these charges," said Eugene Fidell who teaches military law at Yale Law School.

Lind said the prosecution would have to prove that Manning knew the information could reach the enemy through the WikiLeaks website. If it fails to do that, she said she may throw the charge out before Manning's defense team makes its case.

Aiding the enemy is a capital offense, but the prosecution has said it would not seek the death penalty in Manning's case if he is found guilty.

Manning faces a three-week military trial starting on September 21 and has until then to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

"NO OR LITTLE HARM"

In what could be a key part of Manning's defense, Coombs argued on Thursday that the WikiLeaks release caused little or no harm to national security and that Manning as a trained analyst may have chosen information that would not compromise national security.

Since the WikiLeaks release, U.S. government agencies have launched task forces to determine whether any damage was done.

"The documents (we've) seen so far show no or little harm," Coombs said. "Prosecution will argue that he should have known. If he did ... he was selective in what he chose. ... He selected information he believed would not cause harm."

Military prosecutors, who have tried to portray Manning as a trained and trusted analyst who knowingly committed criminal offenses, have requested that harm to national security only be discussed in the sentencing phase of the trial if Manning is found guilty.

That motion will likely be discussed at the next hearing in June, according to a legal expert with the Military District of Washington, the Army command unit for the capital region, who was present at the hearing.

Prosecutors accuse Manning of downloading more than 700,000 classified or confidential files from the military's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, while serving in the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Iraq.

Manning also faces charges of stealing records belonging to the United States and wrongfully causing them to be published on the Internet.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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