US Army kicks off WikiLeaks pretrial

Pfc. Bradley Manning today appeared at a pretrial hearing held at Fort Meade in Maryland, where he stands accused of leaking thousands of classified documents that ultimately ended up on WikiLeaks.

Manning was represented by defense attorney David E. Coombs, who demanded investigating officer Army Lt. Col. Paul Almanza recuse himself from overseeing the proceedings due to an alleged lack of impartiality.

According to Coombs, Almanza has already demonstrated his bias toward the prosecution by allowing only two of the defense’s 38 requested witnesses to appear, ostensibly over national security concerns. 

“A year and a half later, this is what are we doing? Where’s the damage?” Coombs asked rhetorically in a statement quoted by the Washington Post and New York Times.

“Where’s the harm? That’s what the defense wanted to get at today in this hearing, yet you again ruled today, ‘no, I’m not going to hear that.'”

Coombs also noted that Almanza permitted unsworn statements from government witnesses to be considered, despite strenuous objections from the defense team.

“Any of those individually would [suggest] you recuse yourself. Collectively, they mandate it. A reasonable person would say, clearly in this case, the investigating officer is biased.”

Unsurprisingly, Almanza remained tight-lipped during the proceedings, saying only that he would consider all arguments and rule whether or not to recuse himself. Coombs, however, was unimpressed, and pledged to request a stay if Almanza refused to withdraw. 

But Michael J. Navarre, a military law expert and former lieutenant commander in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, told the WaPost it is highly unlikely Almanza will recuse himself.

“Unless there are facts connecting the investigating officer to the actual Manning case, the fact that [Almanza] works within the overall Department of Justice is unlikely to cause him to recuse himself or the convening authority to want to remove him,” he added.

Meanwhile, Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale, told the New York Times the Manning trial was “one of the most interesting military cases of the last 20 years.” 

As Fidell points out, the case “comes at the intersection of advancing technology,” making it possible to disseminate a truckload of classified data on the ‘Net with just a click of a mouse.

“If it is the case that Bradley Manning is indeed the source of this and other Wikileaks materials, Manning would have single-handedly changed hundreds of thousands of people’s lives for the better,” Wikileaks said in a statement quoted by the BBC.

“This material has contributed to ending dictatorships in the Middle East, it has exposed torture and wrongdoing in all the corners of the world and it has held diplomatic bodies and politicians accountable for the words, deals and pacts held behind close doors.”