Manning finally has day in court as prosecutors detail ‘crimes’

US Army private accused of sending secrets to WikiLeaks turns fire on judge as trial begins

Under fierce security and with scant room in the courtroom for reporters or the public, the preliminary hearing into the case against Bradley Manning, the army private accused of stealing secrets and giving them to WikiLeaks, began with a defence demand that the chief investigating officer withdraw himself.

The intervention by Private Manning's civilian lawyer, David Coombs, threatened briefly to halt the hearings even before they started. He asserted that the chief investigating officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Almanza – the judge, in civilian parlance – brings bias to the case because of his long history as a prosecutor for the US Department of Justice, which is conducting a separate investigation into WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange. The request was dismissed, however.

The hearing is Pte Manning's first appearance since his arrest 19 months ago. He sat in army fatigues in a courtroom inside Fort Meade, a military complex north of Washington that is also home to the National Security Agency. All 23 counts against him were set out by the prosecutor, among them the suggestion that he knowingly gave "intelligence to the enemy through indirect means".

If the hearing concludes as scheduled next week, Lt-Col Almanza will have only days to release his findings. It will then fall to Major-General Michael Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, to decide on the next steps. His options will include ordering a full court martial, dismissing some or all of the charges, or imposing administrative punishment without any trial.

"You have been at the Department of Justice since 2002, by your own admission you have prosecuted 20 cases," Mr Coombs told Lt-Col Almanza, saying he had a conflict interest because of that department's probe into Mr Assange. "If the Department of Justice got their way, they would get a plea in this case, and get my client to be named as one of the witnesses to go after Julian Assange and WikiLeaks."

While Pte Manning faces a possible sentence of life behind bars if he is found guilty of the most serious charges at a court martial, to his supporters he remains a hero. A few managed to find spots in the cramped public gallery yesterday but were instantly warned by the court not to interrupt the proceedings or face ejection. A rally by Manning supporters is expected today – the hearings are set to continue through the weekend – and the numbers who show up are likely to be boosted by groups of Occupy Wall Street protesters planning to travel by bus to the camp from New York and Washington.

Pte Manning, who is half Welsh, is accused of downloading thousands of classified documents on to CDs, which he labelled as Lady Gaga songs, while serving as a junior intelligence analyst in Baghdad. The US Army says he then passed the information on to Mr Assange, whom he described to an online chat partner as this "crazy white-haired dude". Mr Assange used his site to publish them for all the world to see.

Mr Coombs is expected to base his defence partly on the contention that while the leaked information embarrassed the United States and some other politicians around the world, they actually did very little damage to American security.

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