WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Army intelligence analyst suspected in the biggest leak of classified U.S. documents in history makes his first court appearance on Friday accused of multiple charges including aiding the enemy, which could bring life imprisonment.
Private First Class Bradley Manning, 23, is suspected of being the source of documents that last year eventually made their way to the WikiLeaks website. WikiLeaks divulged hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables that exposed the candid views of U.S. officials and their allies.
It also released about half a million classified U.S. files on the Iraq and Afghan wars -- actions that Washington said jeopardized national security.
“It was a very unfortunate and damaging action ... that put at risk individuals and relationships to an extent that we took it very seriously and launched a vigorous diplomatic effort to try to counter,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday, referring to the WikiLeaks dump.
She declined comment on the Manning case directly.
Neither side is outlining its legal strategy ahead of the pre-trial hearings -- known as Article 32 hearings, which could run through December 23. But prosecutors aim to show there is sufficient evidence to bring Manning to trial at a general court martial on 22 criminal charges.
If convicted of all counts, Manning would face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, reduction in rank to the lowest enlisted pay grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge, the Army said in a statement.
The most serious charge, aiding the enemy, is a capital crime that carries the death penalty but the Army has indicated it does not plan to seek that punishment.
For much of the time since his detention in May 2010 in Iraq, Manning was held on a charge of improperly obtaining a classified gunsight video that showed a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. The video was released publicly by WikiLeaks.
The additional charges were brought against Manning last spring.
The hearing is being conducted under tight security at Fort Meade, Maryland, a military base that serves as the home of the secretive intelligence-gathering National Security Agency. The proceedings begin one day before Manning, a Crescent, Oklahoma, native, celebrates his 24th birthday.
Members of the Bradley Manning Support Network plan demonstrations outside Fort Meade on Friday and a march outside the base on Saturday joined by protesters from the Occupy movement’s encampments in Washington and on Wall Street, the organizations said.
Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg is expected to address the protesters on Saturday along with former military veterans and diplomats, Manning supporters said in an email.
Manning defenders see him as a hero. Some view the release of the cables, with their frank discussion of corruption in some countries, as having contributed to the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East.
Manning was caught after he bragged about his activities to former hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned him in to authorities, Lamo told Reuters.
Lamo said Manning, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade in Iraq, told him he would come into work with music on a recordable CD labled “something like ‘Lady Gaga.” He would then erase the music and download data from the military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, known as SIPRNet.
Manning said he “listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga’s song ‘Telephone’ while exfiltratrating possibly the largest data spillage in (A)merican history,” according to a transcript of his Internet chats with Lamo, the details of which were confirmed by Lamo to Reuters and which were published by Wired Magazine.
In his Internet chats with Lamo, Manning appears to acknowledged giving materials to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He wrote to Lamo: “I‘m a high profile source ... and I’ve developed a relationship with Assange.”
For his part, Assange is in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden over accusations of rape and sexual assault made by two female former WikiLeaks volunteers in August 2010.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart