WASHINGTON — Amid secrecy and spectacle, the long-awaited court-martial of WikiLeaks linchpin Bradley Manning starts Monday.
The Army private first class already knows he's going to prison, having previously pleaded guilty to 10 charges relating to the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of government documents. Now, in a tightly guarded military courtroom at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, Manning will face more serious charges, including aiding the enemy.
If convicted on the remaining charges, the slightly built, 25-year-old Manning could spend the rest of his life in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Whatever happens, the former intelligence analyst's trial has already incited tough questions about military justice, the public's right to know and the price that's paid by a self-styled whistle-blower.
"I believed that if the public, especially the American public, had access to the information — this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan," Manning explained in court on Feb. 28.
In what has been described as the largest leak of government documents in U.S. history, Manning acknowledges turning over to WikiLeaks some 250,000 State Department cables and 500,000 Army documents. WikiLeaks then published the documents online, as a major part of a broader campaign to disclose government actions.
Army prosecutors say the massive document dump endangered U.S. national security and put lives at risk. "Pfc. Manning was trained and trusted to provide intelligence," Army Capt. Ashden Fein said during an earlier hearing, a transcript shows, adding that "he used that training to defy our trust, to systematically and indiscriminately harm the United States during a time of war and while deployed."
Prosecutors, for instance, have indicated they will present forensic evidence that WikiLeaks material was viewed by the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
An estimated 150 witnesses are expected to testify during the trial, which Manning and his civilian attorney, retired Army officer David Coombs, have chosen to be held before a judge alone instead of a military panel. The trial is expected to last about three months.
To secure a conviction, prosecutors must prove that Manning knew the documents he provided WikiLeaks would be seen by al-Qaida members or other enemies of the United States. Under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, someone can be convicted for aiding the enemy by conveying intelligence "by direct or indirect means."
On Saturday afternoon, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg and others affiliated with the Bradley Manning Support Network rallied at the Fort Meade main gate, outside of Washington. "We are all Bradley Manning," demonstrators chanted.