FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - An American Army intelligence analyst suspected of being behind the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history made his first court appearance on Friday, sitting stone-faced as military prosecutors launched their case against him.
Private First Class Bradley Manning, 23, faces charges including aiding the enemy, which could send him to prison for life. He is suspected of being the source of documents that eventually were released on the Internet by WikiLeaks -- data dumps that Washington said jeopardized national security.
Manning was quiet as he sat in the courtroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, wearing military fatigues and dark-rimmed glasses, occasionally taking notes during the pre-trial proceedings.
He answered with a quick, “Yes, sir” when investigating officer, Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Almanza, asked him whether he understood the charges against him.
After questioning Almanza, Manning attorney David Coombs announced that the defense was filing a motion for the investigating officer to recuse himself because of his work at the Department of Justice.
The Justice Department is investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. If Justice “had its way,” Coombs argued, it would get a plea from Manning that would help it “go after Assange.” Almanza rejected the motion.
Security was tight as media and some protesters gathered at the base, which also serves as the home of the secretive intelligence-gathering National Security Agency.
WikiLeaks eventually posted online hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables that exposed the candid views of U.S. officials and their allies.
It also released about half a million classified U.S. files on the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Prosecutors aim to show there is sufficient evidence to bring Manning to trial at a general court martial on 22 criminal charges.
If convicted of all counts, Manning would face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, reduction in rank to the lowest enlisted pay grade, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge, the Army said in a statement.
The most serious charge, aiding the enemy, is a capital crime that carries the death penalty but the Army has indicated it does not plan to seek that punishment.
For much of the time since his detention beginning in May 2010 in Iraq, Manning was held on a charge of improperly obtaining a classified gunsight video that showed a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists. The video was released publicly by WikiLeaks.
The additional charges were brought against Manning last spring.
The proceedings began one day before Manning, a Crescent, Oklahoma, native, marked his 24th birthday.
Members of the Bradley Manning Support Network demonstrated on Friday, joined by protesters from the Occupy movement’s encampments in Washington and on Wall Street, the organizations said.
Supporters plan a march outside the base on Saturday with Daniel Ellsberg, who released the controversial history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971, expected to address them.
Manning defenders see him as a hero. Some view the release of the cables, with their frank discussion of corruption in some countries, as having contributed to the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East.
“He stands accused of doing the right thing,” said Zack Pesavento, who was at Fort Meade.
Some protesters held signs that read: “Free Bradley Manning” and “The Truth Will Set You Free.”
As the first day of hearings ended, a man with the group “Veterans for Peace” shouted inside the courtroom: “Bradley Manning, you’re a hero,” according to witnesses in the room. Manning, controlled throughout, didn’t respond or turn around.
Manning was caught after he bragged about his activities to former hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned him in to authorities, Lamo told Reuters.
Lamo said Manning, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade in Iraq, told him he would bring in CDs and load them with downloaded data from the military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, known as SIPRNet.
In Internet chats with Lamo, Manning appears to acknowledged giving materials to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He wrote to Lamo: “I‘m a high profile source ... and I’ve developed a relationship with Assange.”
Assange is in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden over accusations of rape and sexual assault made by two female former WikiLeaks volunteers in August 2010. Britain’s Supreme Court said on Friday it granted permission for Assange to appeal his case.
Writing by Phil Stewart and David Alexander