FORT MEADE, Md. (CN) – A military investigator refused to step down from a case that calls on him to determine to whether to launch court-martial proceedings against a soldier accused of “aiding the enemy” by contributing to Wikileaks.
Attorney David Coombs says the Justice Department has targeted his client, Bradley Manning, in the hopes of building a case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Decribed by Pentagon Papers source Daniel Ellsberg as a “hero,” Manning had supporters filling the courtroom and an additional 30 sat in a nearby theater where the proceedings were being aired on closed-circuit television.
Manning’s investigating officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, is a reservist who worked as a Justice Department prosecutor up until two weeks ago when the DOJ assigned the Manning case to him.
Coombs says Almanza’s DOJ employment could cloud his handling of the Manning case, noting that Almanza has admitted to sending emails about the Manning case from his Justice Department account after being named investigating officer.
Almanza presided as an investigating officer over six court-martial cases, all of which involved privates first class and ended with guilty pleas.
At a hearing Friday morning, Coombs said Almanza may have interfered with Manning’s right to a fair trial by refusing to close a small part of the proceedings. He also said Almanza has accepted unsworn statements from government witnesses whom defense attorneys could not test.
Though Almanza gave the green light to all of the prosecutors’ witnesses, he allegedly denied all but two defense witnesses who did not overlap with those whom the government plans to call.
“Every one of [the government’s] 20 witnesses was granted. No basis or relevance,” Coombs said, adding that the 48 pages of requests submitted by the defense explained their relevance arguments in detail.
Almanza allegedly cleared 12 of these requests, and 10 of these overlapped with government requests.
Coombs hoped these witnesses would show that allegedly leaked documents did not harm anyone.
“Where’s the damage? Where’s the harm?” Coombs asked. “That’s what the defense wanted to get out of the hearing. And you ruled against it.”
The government took more than 45 minutes to prepare counterarguments.
When the parties returned, Almanza said that he had consulted with his legal adviser, Lt. Col. Mark Holzer, for guidance about how he should rule. Holzer is the author of “Economics of National Security: ‘Unfunding’ Terror.”
Almanza told military prosecutor Capt. Ashden Fein that he felt he could be unbiased. During an early afternoon recess, he announced that he would not step down.
Though the defense had wanted Almanza to call a military chief trial judge for guidance about the decision, Almanza said his call to that official went unanswered.
During the government’s breezy questioning, Almanza sat with his elbow on the bench and his chin on his hand, explaining that he worked in the Justice Department’s child-exploitation division. He said that he never spoke to his colleagues about the case nor has he reviewed their files.
Fein said that “unfavorable rulings” do not warrant recusal, and a Justice Department employee had served as an investigating officer for a different officer’s court-martial.
Coombs countered, however, that the other officer facing a court-martial did not have an active Justice Department investigation against him.
Minutes after the first recess, news outlets around the world filed stories on the proceedings. Coombs lifted a stack of these reports to show there was an “appearance of bias.”
At one point, Coombs swept his hand across the room, saying, “This is a beautiful courtroom” and the government hoped to “put on its best face.”
“Is this the best we can do?” he asked.
After Almanza refused to step down, Coombs said he would ask the Army Court of Criminal Appeals for a writ of stay.
The hearing closed for the day at 3:30 p.m.