A military judge on Thursday accepted the terms under which the young Army private charged in one of the largest leaks of classified material in US history would plead guilty to lesser charges, a move that raises questions about whether the government will proceed with its most serious charges.
Under the terms, Pfc. Bradley Manning would accept responsibility for providing classified materials to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The offenses he is willing to plead guilty to carry a maximum term of 16 years in prison.
The decision by the judge, Col. Denise Lind, in Fort Meade, Md., does not mean the plea by Manning has been formally accepted.
The government has not said whether it will proceed with the remaining counts, including violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy, which are more difficult to prove, experts say. Both require evidence of intent — and in the case of the Espionage Act, an intent to injure the United States.
Lind's ruling "gives the government a chance to make a decision about what they want to do with the more serious charges," said Michael Navarre, a military law expert. "They now will have been able to extract some punishment for some of the charges he's pled to. The question is do they want to spend the time and the money to go forward with the more serious charges? There's always been a question of whether or not the government could prove the more serious charges."
Another military law specialist, Eugene Fidell, at Yale Law School, said that "anybody can plead guilty and hope the government won't bother them anymore." But, he said, "I assume" the government would proceed. "Why wouldn't they?"
Manning, 24, is charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of State Department cables, daily field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other classified material.
In extensive online chats obtained by prosecutors, Manning allegedly communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about the material.
"I've been penetrating *smil.mil networks for over a year," Manning said in one of the chats, referring to the classified military network.
The judge's ruling Thursday came during pretrial hearings in which Manning's attorney, David Coombs, has argued that his client was subject to "unlawful pretrial confinement."
Coombs is seeking to have the charges against Manning dismissed or to reduce any sentence that is rendered because of the alleged mistreatment. His client was held in solitary confinement for more than eight months at Marine Corps Base Quantico under stringent conditions.
Officials at Quantico have said they considered Manning a suicide risk.