Fort Meade: An American Army intelligence analyst accused of giving hundreds of thousands of classified US documents to WikiLeaks for public disclosure made his first court appearance on Friday to face charges including aiding the enemy, which could send him to prison for life.
Private First Class Bradley Manning, charged with supplying WikiLeaks with massive dumps of classified US documents, sat quietly in the courtroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, wearing military fatigues, dark-rimmed glasses and a short haircut.
He answered with a quick, "yes sir" as investigating officer Lieutenant Paul Almanza asked him whether he understood the charges against him.
After questioning Almanza, Manning attorney David Coombs announced that the defense was filing a motion for the investigating officer to recuse himself because of his work at the Department of Justice.
The Justice Department is conducting an investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. If Justice "had its way," Coombs argued, it would get a plea from Manning that would help it "go after Assange."
Security was tight as media and some protesters gathered at the base, which also serves as the home of the intelligence-gathering National Security Agency.
WikiLeaks eventually posted online hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables that exposed the candid views of US officials and their allies.
It also released about half a million classified US files on the Iraq and Afghan wars -- actions that Washington said jeopardized national security.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday called the WikiLeaks dump a "a very unfortunate and damaging action ... that put at risk individuals and relationships."
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 beginning 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.
Defenders see a hero
The proceedings begin one day before Manning, a Crescent, Oklahoma, native, celebrates his 24th birthday.
Members of the Bradley Manning Support Network were planning demonstrations on Friday outside Fort Meade 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.
Daniel Ellsberg, who released the controversial history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971, 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.
"He stands accused of doing the right thing," said Zack Pesavento, who was at Fort Meade on Friday morning.
Manning was caught after he bragged about his activities to former hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned him in to authorities, Lamo said.
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 labeled "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 exfiltrating 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 Assange. He wrote to Lamo: "I`m a high profile source ... and I`ve developed a relationship with Assange."
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. Britain`s Supreme Court said on Friday it granted permission for Assange to appeal his case.