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Bradley Manning appears in court Friday

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The hearing is open to the public but with limited seating in the courtroom. A small number of reporters were present but not allowed to record or photograph the proceedings. Manning was not seen arriving in the courtroom because he was brought in before journalists were allowed to enter.

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

A U.S. military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began Friday that the presiding officer is likely to make his recommendation on whether to court-martial Manning within eight days after the hearing ends. The hearing is expected to last through the weekend and possibly well into next week.

The legal expert, who could not be identified under Army ground rules, said Manning is to be present for all proceedings, including sessions closed to the public for consideration of classified material.

Fort Meade, located between Washington and Baltimore, is, ironically, home to U.S. Cyber Command, the organization whose mission includes protecting computer networks like the one Manning allegedly breached by illegally downloading huge numbers of classified documents in Iraq.

He is suspected of giving the documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website that last year began publishing the materials.
Manning's lawyer asserts that the documents' release did little actual harm.

The case has spawned an international movement in support of Manning, who is seen by anti-war activists as a hero who helped expose American mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. To others he is a villain, even a traitor, who betrayed his oath of loyalty by deliberately spilling his government's secrets.

Manning's supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organizing a rally for Saturday. By midday, about 50 protesters had assembled outside the main entrance, and a few dozen protesters marched down a road along the base carrying neon orange signs that read, "The Bradley Manning Support Network."

The hearing at Fort Meade is intended to yield a recommendation to Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, on whether Manning should be court-martialed. Linnington could choose other courses, including applying an administrative punishment or dismissing some or all of the 22 counts against Manning.

The Manning case has led to a debate over the broader issue of whether the government's system for classifying and shielding information has grown so unwieldy that it is increasingly vulnerable to intrusions.

Absent from the Meade proceedings will be Assange, who runs WikiLeaks from England. He is fighting in British courts to block a Swedish request that he be extradited to face trial over rape allegations.

A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, and WikiLeaks is straining under an American financial embargo.

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