FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - The U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking classified files to the WikiLeaks website gave enemies “unfettered access” to government secrets, a military prosecutor said on Thursday, but a defense lawyer said the soldier had done no harm.
The lawyers made closing arguments at a hearing to determine whether Private First Class Bradley Manning, 24, should be court-martialed on charges including aiding the enemy and wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet.
Manning’s lawyer David Coombs accused prosecutors of overreaching in bringing 22 criminal charges, saying the massive release of documents had caused no harm to national security and the government was trying “to strong-arm a plea from my client.”
“The sky is not falling, the sky has not fallen and the sky will not fall” as a result of the document release, Coombs said.
Captain Ashden Fein, the lead prosecutor, countered that the document release had helped al Qaeda, showing a video in which a recruiter for the militant group referred to WikiLeaks and urged followers to “take advantage of the wide range of resources available today on the Internet.”
Aiding the enemy is an offense that could bring the death penalty but the prosecution has said it intends to seek life in prison for Manning. Coombs said the prosecution needed a “reality check” and focused his closing remarks on urging them to seek no more than 30 years in prison.
Coombs asked the court to throw out charges of aiding the enemy and giving intelligence to the enemy, saying the audience for the information was the American people. He also urged the court to dismiss several other counts, saying overall security within the unit was lax.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Almanza, the investigating officer in the case, will now review the evidence presented at the hearing and make a recommendation by January 16 on whether the military should court-martial Manning.
Manning is accused of downloading more than 700,000 classified or confidential files from the military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet, while serving in Iraq.
Those files are thought to be the source of documents that appeared on WikiLeaks, which promotes the leaking of government and corporate information.
The prosecution has portrayed Manning as a trained and trusted analyst who knowingly committed criminal acts when he allegedly passed the documents to WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors have sought to link Manning to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, introducing logs of web chats that an investigator said appeared to show conversations in which the two discuss sending government documents.
Manning’s lawyers have portrayed him as an emotionally troubled young man whose behavioral problems should have prompted superiors to revoke his access to classified information.
Witnesses said Manning sent an email to his sergeant expressing concern that confusion over his gender identity was seriously hurting his life, work and ability to think. Manning had created a female alter-ego online, Breanna Manning, according to testimony at the hearing.
The courtroom at Fort Meade, northeast of Washington, was packed on Thursday for the closing arguments. Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, attended, as did Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
Fein said Manning “gave the enemies of the United States unfettered access to these documents.”
He used a PowerPoint presentation to underscore the training Manning had received on the importance of protecting classified information. He said Manning even cautioned his colleagues in a briefing he conducted in 2008 about the common way in which leaks occur, including through the Internet or journalists.
Coombs underscored Manning’s emotional instability, saying he mainly “struggled in isolation” but showed warning signs that should have prompted the unit’s leaders to take action.
He went over excerpts of Manning’s email to his sergeant discussing his gender identity issues.
“This is my problem. I’ve had signs of it for a long time. I thought a career in the military would get rid of it ... It is not going away ... and now the consequences of it are dire,” the email said. “At this point it feels like I‘m not really a person ... sorry.”
Coombs also cited memos between Manning’s supervisors discussing his increasing instability and the need for therapy. But in the end there was no effective action.
“It was the military’s lack of response to that which also smacks in the face of justice,” Coombs said.
Writing by David Alexander; Editing by John O'Callaghan