FORT MEADE, Md. — A military prosecutor told a judge on Monday that Pfc. Bradley Manning was no ordinary leaker, as the court-martial opened for the former Army intelligence analyst who has confessed to being the source for vast archives of secret military and diplomatic documents made public by WikiLeaks.
“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,” said the prosecutor, Capt. Joe Morrow of the Army.
But a defense lawyer for Private Manning told the judge that his client had been “young, naïve, but good-intentioned” and that he had, in fact, tried to make sure that the several hundred thousand documents he released would not cause harm.
“He was selective,” said the defense lawyer, David Coombs. “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.”
The dueling portrayals underscored the oddity at the heart of the trial, which is expected to last as long as 12 weeks. There is no doubt that Private Manning did most of what he is accused is doing, and he has already pleaded guilty to 10 charges for that conduct, for which he could be sentenced to up to 20 years.
But his plea was not part of any deal with the government, and prosecutors are moving forward with the trial because they hope to convict him of a far more serious set of charges, including violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy, that could result in a life sentence.
The government’s decision not to accept a plea deal with the young private and to instead pursue life imprisonment is just one piece of the aggressive tactics the Obama administration has used in its pursuit of leakers. The administration has brought six prosecutions in leak-related cases, compared with three under all previous presidents.
Last month, a furor erupted followed the disclosure that the Justice Department had secretly obtained phone call logs for reporters for The Associated Press and Fox News as part of two leak investigations – and that it had told a judge, as part of a search warrant application for the Fox News reporter’s e-mails, that the reporter most likely violated the Espionage Act.
Private Manning sat quietly in the courtroom during the opening statements. A government official said his aunt — whose home in Potomac, Md., he visited in the midst of his 2009-10 deployment in Iraq, when he downloaded the documents – was in the courtroom, along with a cousin. He spoke briefly earlier in the day, reaffirming to the judge, Col. Denise Lind, that he still wanted a trial before her alone rather than a jury.
The opening of the trial drew a far larger crowd of supporters and reporters than the hearings on pretrial motions over the past six months. Dozens of supporters, holding signs with pictures of Private Manning and “Free Bradley” messages, stood in the rain at the main entrance to Fort Meade, near Baltimore, where the court-martial is being held.
In his 58-minute opening presentation, Captain Morrow cited logs of searches and downloads from Private Manning’s classified computer, chat logs with a person he contended was the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, recovered files that had been deleted from Private Manning’s personal computer, and other such records to show the pace and scale of his downloads.
Captain Morrow’s portrayal dovetailed in many ways with Private Manning’s own confession in February, but the prosecutor appeared to be laying the groundwork to argue that Private Manning started downloading files earlier in his deployment than he had confessed to doing, and that he played a more active role in interacting with WikiLeaks.
In particular, Captain Morrow contended that some of Private Manning’s searches were undertaken in response to public requests by WikiLeaks for certain documents, like files related to detainee interrogations. He also said Private Manning had made suggestions about how to edit a video showing an Apache airstrike on a group of men in Baghdad in 2007 that he provided; two Reuters journalists died in the strike.
And the prosecutor repeatedly emphasized that Private Manning had been trained to be wary of posting material on the Internet, and had specifically uncovered an intelligence report warning that foreign adversaries could be gaining access to the information posted on WikiLeaks. Captain Morrow also said the government would show that Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had requested and obtained an archive of wartime incident reports in Afghanistan that Private Manning gave to WikiLeaks.
But Mr. Coombs rejected the notion that Private Manning was working for WikiLeaks and tried to show that Private Manning’s mind-set and motivations were focused on helping society, not the enemy.
He said Private Manning was “not a typical soldier” when he deployed at 22, but rather a “humanist” who valued all life and who was also struggling with his own gender identity at the time, both of which Mr. Coombs said influenced his decision to try to change the world.
Private Manning’s disclosures lifted the veil of secrecy on matters like the impact of the wars on civilians, including incident reports and videos about the deaths of civilians, on the evidence — or lack of it — against Guantanamo detainees, and on secret diplomatic dealings by the United States and other governments.
Mr. Coombs began his opening statement, which was about half the length of the prosecutor’s, by describing an episode on Dec. 24, 2009, nearly two months after Private Manning was deployed to Iraq, which he portrayed as a turning point. A bomb exploded near a convoy, and everyone in his unit was afraid that their fellow soldiers had been hurt.
Word came back that they were O.K., and everyone celebrated. Then word came that an innocent Iraqi family that had pulled over beside the road to let the convoy pass had been severely injured, with one person dying en route to the hospital. While the others in his unit continued to celebrate, Mr. Coombs said, Private Manning – thinking about the Iraqi victims – was crushed.
From that moment, Mr. Coombs said, things started to change, and in January 2010 Private Manning “started selecting information he believed the public should see, should hear – information he believed if the public knew, could make the world a better place.”
Captain Morrow, however, contended that Private Manning had started helping WikiLeaks in “late November 2009,” less than two weeks after he started working in a secure classified facility there. He said that a “forensic duplicate” of a video of an airstrike in Afghanistan in which civilians were killed was on the computer of a former employee of Brookhaven National Laboratory, on December 2009, suggesting that the employee had been trying to break the encryption on the video for WikiLeaks.
Private Manning had tried to plead guilty to leaking the Afghan strike video, but said that the transmission took place months after the date range listed in the government charge sheet, so the judge rejected his guilty plea to that specification. Exactly when he sent the video to WikiLeaks, then, is a rare disputed fact in the trial that otherwise is focusing on abstract matters like how much harm he knew or should have known the information he released could cause.
Three live witnesses were scheduled to testify on Monday afternoon. A government lawyer identified the first two as Agent Smith and Agent Graham, without giving first names, describing them as investigators with the Army’s criminal investigative division who secured the scene of the crime in Iraq.
The third witness, the lawyer said, will be Specialist Baker, whom he described as the roommate of Private Manning when they were deployed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, where Private Manning has said he downloaded the files from a secure government network.
About the author: Charles Savage is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He is known for his work on presidential power and other legal policy matters.