FORT MEADE, Md. (CN) – At the first day of court-martial proceedings Thursday, Pfc. Bradley Manning declined to plead on 22 charges stemming from his alleged disclosure of 700,000 classified documents to Wikileaks.
The 24-year-old solider can register a plea anytime up to and including the trial date, which has not yet been set.
During the 50-minute hearing, Manning likewise postponed decisions about trying the case before a military judge or a panel of fellow officers.
If Manning chooses the latter option, the jury will vote by secret ballots, with a two-thirds majority needed for a conviction. The top charge, aiding the enemy, carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The remaining counts add up to 150 years.
Manning’s supporters, several of whom lined the courtroom, believe the allegedly leaked files expose corruption and war crimes. Earlier this month, Icelandic parliamentarians nominated Manning for a Nobel Prize, on that basis.
Wikileaks divided its trove of confidential documents into several categories: “Cablegate” for diplomatic cables; Iraq and Afghanistan incident reports in “War Diaries;” and “Collateral Murder” for a July 12, 2007 video of a Baghdad airstrike that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.
Though Manning has not identified himself as the source, there has not been much argument against that conclusion. During closing remarks of a pretrial hearing last December, defense attorney David Coombs made a telling argument for transparency.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Coombs said, quoting former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
As he had in December, Manning appeared at the Thursday court-martial dressed in a Class A, green military uniform and said few words.
“Yes, your Honor,” Manning said, when asked if he understood his legal rights and wanted to keep the same lawyers.
Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told reporters that Manning likely postponed his decisions for strategic reasons. Ratner observed the proceedings on behalf of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whom the Center for Constitutional Rights represents.
In addition to the Wikileaks charges, Manning’s attorney had to fight claims of another leak. Prosecutor Ashden Fein claimed that Manning’s defense motions contained “spillage,” or inadvertent disclosure of classified information in legal documents.
Coombs countered that two security experts confirmed there was no spillage. He proposed giving the government the chance to vet defense documents unilaterally in the future to avoid further controversy.
Though Military Judge Denise Lind has not yet determined a firm trial date, Coombs balked at the Aug. 3 suggestion of prosecutors, saying that his client already has spent 635 days in pretrial detention.
The Center for Constitutional Rights says the standard military detention time usually required for due process is 120 days. Manning’s detention is five times longer.
The defense said it will be ready for trial by April and will not accept a trial date past June.
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International objected to the earliest days of Manning’s detention spent in solitary confinement in Quantico, Va. Manning was later transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in the face of widespread protest.
At the end of the mostly procedural hearing, 81-year-old protester David Eberhardt shouted to Judge Lind, “Isn’t a soldier required to report a war crime?”
Lind did not respond to the query.
Eberhardt left the room without incident, later telling Courthouse News that the Manning trial was a “railroad of humongous proportions.”
A self-described peacenik from Baltimore, Eberhardt says he was imprisoned in 1967 for pouring blood on Vietnam War draft files.
Hearings in the Manning court-martial will continue on March 15 and 16, when the parties will meet to discuss various discovery matters. Coombs will likely press the government to specify which of Manning’s statements, memorialized in more than 31,000 documents provided by prosecutors, will be used at trial.