Bradley Manning appears in court Friday

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FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) - The 23-year-old soldier accused of slipping a trove of national security secrets to the WikiLeaks website sat quietly at the defense table in the opening session of his pretrial hearing Friday as government and defense lawyers tangled over whether the presiding officer can be impartial.

Manning is accused of leaking documents to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. (Photo: Associated Press)

David Coombs, the civilian attorney for Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been in military detention since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010, pushed for the presiding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, to step aside.

A member of the prosecution team, Capt. Ashden Fein, said the government opposes recusal.

"The United States does not believe you've exhibited any bias in any form and that you can render a fair and impartial decision," Fein said.

Almanza said he believes he is unbiased, but he did not make a formal decision on the matter before taking a noon recess.

Manning took notes during the opening session of his hearing at this Army base between Washington and Baltimore. Dressed in Army camouflage fatigues and wearing dark-rimmed glasses, Manning sometimes twirled a pen in his fingers as the hearing got off to a slow start.

The hearing is to determine whether Manning will face a court-martial. If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.

During the opening hours of Friday's session, neither the government nor Manning's defense team presented arguments on the substance of the charges against him. They instead got entangled in a dispute over Almanza's impartiality.

Almanza's civilian occupation as a Justice Department prosecutor was the chief reason Coombs gave in asking him to recuse himself. The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Coombs also argued that Almanza had wrongly denied a defense request to call as witnesses the "original classification authorities" who first decided to classify as secret the material WikiLeaks published. Instead, Almanza has chosen to accept unsworn statements from those people, Coombs said.

Coombs said the decision eliminated the defense's ability to question why the leaked material was classified.

"Let's put witnesses on the stand," he said. "Why is this stuff classified? Why is it going to cause harm?"

Manning, 23, is charged with aiding the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents that ended up on the anti-secrecy website.

Almanza, who is an Army reservist, said he hasn't formed an opinion about Manning's guilt or innocence.

During the hearing's opening moments, Manning responded to a series of questions from Almanza. After summarizing the charges against Manning, Almanza asked if he understood them. "Yes, sir," Manning replied.
Asked whether he had any questions about the charges, Manning replied, "No, sir."

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