WikiLeaks Suspect Bradley Manning's Bold Defense at Pretrial Hearing

The WikiLeaks suspect’s lawyer came out swinging, citing the judge's conflict of interest. By Denver Nicks.

Cliff Owen / AP Photo

After more than a year of silence following his May 2010 arrest in connection with WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning has come out swinging. The 23-year-old Army private faces a litany of charges, including aiding the enemy, a capital offense.

What might have been a rote pretrial hearing to determine what charges the government will pursue against Private Manning turned contentious Friday, as Manning’s attorney opened with a vigorous denunciation of what he called bias on the part of the presiding judge. Manning’s defense called for the judge to recuse, a request he denied. The defense team filed an appeal with the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. The hearing will continue as scheduled pending a decision on the appeal.

At the outset of the day, the lead defense lawyer, David Coombs, called on the government-appointed judge, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, to recuse. Almanza is a civilian Army reservist and an employee of the Department of Justice, which is involved in an investigation into WikiLeaks. Among Coombs’s objections was Almanza’s decision to prohibit the defense from examining the majority of the witnesses it requested. Of 48 witnesses Coombs asked to question, Almanza chose to allow only 12, 10 of whom were the same 10 requested by the prosecution. The decision, Coombs argued, effectively eliminated his client’s ability to mount a defense. The prosecution was mostly quiet through the proceedings, adding briefly that they had faith in the presiding officer’s impartiality.

At issue are two very different visions of what, exactly, Manning’s case is about. While the state would prefer to address a narrow set of issues, the defense intends, if it is allowed, to open a discussion with far more significant implications.

“This case rises and falls on whether or not information was properly classified, whether or not it causes harm,” Coombs said. “Let’s get these witnesses up here to discuss, ‘Why is this information classified?’” Manning sat calmly at the defense table with his hands clasped, wearing a camouflage Army uniform and thick-framed black eyeglasses, while Coombs launched into a spirited oratory. “Where is the damage? Where is the harm?” he asked. “That’s what the defense wanted to get out today and in this hearing, and yet you ruled no, we’re not going to hear that.”

Coombs questioned wholesale the impartiality of the hearing, accusing the judge at times of doing the prosecution’s job for them. “Many wonder why are we here a year and a half later. Why has it taken so long?” Coombs asked rhetorically. “Because the government has asked for delay after delay after delay, and the government has granted it again and again and again.” The requests for delay, Coombs said, were due to the need to get clearances to discuss classified information, much of which is, after WikiLeaks’ releases, widely available on the Internet.

Early in the afternoon, the judge announced that a motion had been filed by a third party requesting “extraordinary relief for access to the proceedings.” It had been filed by an attorney for Julian Assange. “As counsel for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange,” wrote the WikiLeaks chief’s lawyer, “we must be given access to these proceedings. The lack of transparency that has been a hallmark of the military’s prosecution of Private Manning to date also serves to obscure his abusive conditions of confinement.” The court made no comment on the motion.

Protesters gathered outside and a small number of supporters were allowed into the courtroom. According to an Army spokesman, an additional viewing gallery with space for 100, similar to that on offer for journalists, was made available to the public but only 30 took advantage of the offer. Throughout the proceedings, Manning sat quietly at the defense table, occasionally shifting to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, to speak to one of his attorneys, or to take notes. At the day’s end, as spectators filed out of the courtroom, one shouted, “Bradley Manning, you’re a hero!” Manning remained stoic.