FORT MEADE, Md. — The court-martial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, whose secret release of a vast archive of military and diplomatic materials put WikiLeaks into an international spotlight, opened here Monday with dueling portrayals — of a traitor who endangered the lives of his fellow soldiers and of a principled protester motivated by a desire to help society who carefully selected which documents to release.
The contrast between the government's description of Manning and his lawyer's underscored the oddity at the heart of the trial, which is expected to last as long as 12 weeks: There is no doubt that he did most of what he is accused of doing, and the crucial issue is how those actions should be understood.
In February, Manning pleaded guilty to nine lesser versions of the charges he is facing — and one full one — while confessing in detail to releasing the trove of documents for which he could be sentenced to up to 20 years.
But his plea was not part of any deal, and prosecutors are going to trial because they hope to convict him, based on essentially the same facts, of 20 more serious offenses — including espionage and aiding the enemy — that could result in a life sentence.
Since his arrest three years ago, Manning, 25, has been embraced as a whistle-blower and hero by many on the political left.
Inside the courtroom Monday, as Manning sat quietly, David Coombs, his defense lawyer, told the judge that his client had been "young, naive but good-intentioned" and that he had tried to ensure that the roughly 700,000 documents he released would not cause harm.
"He was selective," Coombs said. "He had access to literally hundreds of millions of documents as an all-source analyst, and these were the documents that he released. And he released these documents because he was hoping to make the world a better place."
But a prosecutor, Capt. Joe Morrow, said that Manning was no ordinary leaker who made a particular document public but rather someone who grabbed classified databases wholesale and sent them to a place where he knew adversaries such as al-Qaida could get to them.
"This is a case about a soldier who systematically harvested hundreds of thousands of classified documents and dumped them onto the Internet, into the hands of the enemy — material he knew, based on his training, would put the lives of fellow soldiers at risk," Morrow said.