Bradley Manning’s Pre-Trial Hearing Begins Today

Eighteen months after his initial detention without charge, Bradley Manning's pre-trial hearing opens dramatically with 23 counts against the WikiLeaks suspect and the possibility of life in custody without parole.

Friday was the first day that Manning, the former Army private and intelligence analyst that is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the WikiLeaks organization while stationed in Iraq, had appeared in public since May 2010.

The most serious charge against him is that he knowingly gave “intelligence to the enemy, through indirect means,” but 31 additional charges will be considered in the pre-trial hearing, including violation of the Espionage Act.

The hearing, known as an Article 32, is being held in Fort Meade, Maryland, to consider whether Manning will be sent to a full court-martial. Only a small number of seats in the courtroom were held for reporters, and live coverage of the pretrial hearings is not allowed. There are also expected to be periods when the trial goes into private deliberation to discuss matters considered sensitive to national security.

The defense called for 48 witnesses, including Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton as well as superiors and psychiatrists of Manning to assess the soldier's psychological state prior to the transfer of the records. Clinton, who has said the leaks “did not represent significant consequences to foreign policy,” is listed to highlight that the publishing of the WikiLeaks embassy cables was not as damaging to national security as was initially suggested.

All but ten of the defense's choice witnesses were rejected, and the ten remaining were also chosen by the prosecution.

Manning's civilian lawyer, David Coombs, said this “would deny PFC Manning his right to a thorough and impartial investigation and turn this into a hollow exercise,” saying that the charges against Manning are “among the most serious charges that a soldier can face. The government must be prepared to accept the costs incurred by the seriousness of the charges that they have preferred against PFC Manning.”

Coombs began by calling for the presiding judge to stand down due to the perception of bias. According to tweets by The Guardian UK's Ed Pilkington, Manning's lawyer started by “accusing judge of being a defence department stooge.

He believes that Lt. Col. Paul Almanza is biased primarily because, in his civilian life, he works as a prosecutor with the Department of Justice, which is conducting a separate investigation of the WikiLeaks case. Coombs also said that Almanza's ruling on pretrial motions, including the ability of the defense to call witnesses, was unfair to the defense.

Following a deliberation break, Almanza declined to recuse himself. The defense is expected to file a writ with the Army court of criminal appeals, according to a legal expert quoted by The Guardian UK.

David Leigh, The Guardian UK's investigations editor, says this legal theater has throw up two key developments:

The first is the disclosure that the defense team unsuccessfully asked for the hearing to be held in secret. Coombs is signaling that a torrent of unwelcome prosecution claims are likely to be poured over Manning's head in public, with little chance for him to rebut them.

The second point of interest is that Coombs has started to air the popular conspiracy theory, which may indeed be well-founded, that his client has been locked up and harshly treated for the past 18 months, in the hope that he would agree to “go over” and testify against Julian Assange, the Australian hacker to whom he allegedly sent the leaked diplomatic cables, causing an international furor.

The defense is also expected to demonstrate the fragility of Manning's mental and emotional state prior to the WikiLeaks release, and the failure of his superiors to act on this knowledge.

This will include testimony by a psychiatrist that saw Manning months before his arrest and found him “under a considerable amount of stress” and “hypersensitive to criticism,” including that “he was once found curled up in a fetal position in a meeting room, rocking himself back and forth.”

Despite these warnings, Coombs will argue, Manning's superiors did not act on reports of his distress, and he was allowed to continue working with confidential databases.

According to Politico, 15 people have already been disciplined for their failure to act and decisions that led to Manning's alleged leaking of classified documents.

Witnesses will also testify about Manning's struggle with being gay under the “don't ask, don't tell” policy.

The Army has come under fire for keeping Manning under detention for 18 months without trial, as well as the conditions of his detention. Since his confinement, Manning has become a symbol of free speech, and groups including the Bradley Manning Support Network have pushed for his release and the dropping of all charges against him.

Due largely to the actions of activists like Bradley Manning Support Network, his treatment in solitary confinement from July 2010 to April drew international attention, including a campaign by Amnesty International, a request to visit Manning from the United Nations torture investigator and a letter from 54 members of the European Parliament to the American government.

Supporters of Manning are in the courtroom and are also holding vigil outside the gates of Fort Meade. Protesters will include Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and protesters from Occupy Wall Street. A rally will also be held Saturday, on Manning's 24th birthday.

“It was very important that that information be out,” Jean Athey, an activist from Montgomery County, told CBS News Thursday. “Making information public is essential to a free country.”