FORT MEADE, Md. Supporters of an Army private charged in the biggest security breach in U.S. history packed a military courtroom on Tuesday as his attorneys made the case he'd already been punished enough when he was locked up alone in a small cell for nine months and forced to sleep naked for several nights.
As the pretrial hearing for Pfc. Bradley Manning began at Fort Meade near Baltimore, about two dozen Manning backers who'd held up signs of support outside the post went inside to watch the proceedings, many wearing black t-shirts with the word "Truth" in white lettering. The Army private is charged with spilling U.S. secrets to the website WikiLeaks.
The U.S. government claims the disclosures endangered lives and security. Manning supporters say the leaks exposed war crimes and triggered pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.
Military commanders involved in the confinement of Manning were questioned first at the proceedings, which are expected to last several days. Manning may be asked to testify.
Manning's lawyers contend he was illegally punished by being locked up alone in a small cell for nearly nine months at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., where he had to sleep naked for several nights.
Daniel Choike, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was one of the first to testify. He denied that Lt. Gen. George Flynn, a three-star general and commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico at the time, had anything to do with the decisions into Manning's confinement.
Judges can dismiss all charges if pretrial punishment is particularly egregious, but that rarely happens. The usual remedy is credit at sentencing for time served, said Lisa M. Windsor, a retired Army colonel and former Army judge advocate now in private practice in Washington.
In a 1956 case, U.S. v. Bayhand, a military appeals court ordered all charges dismissed against a soldier who had been forced during his pretrial confinement to do hard labor alongside a sentenced prisoner. The court ruled that the soldier had been given an illegal order.
Since then, there have been few, if any, cases in which pretrial punishment has led to dismissal of all charges. Lt. Col. Eric Carpenter, chairman of the criminal law department at the judge advocates school in Charlottesville, Va., said he couldn't find one but he couldn't say for sure that the remedy hasn't been granted.
Manning has also offered to take responsibility for the leak by pleading guilty to reduced charges. The military judge hasn't yet ruled on the offer and prosecutors have not said whether they would still pursue the charges against him.
He was kept at the Marine Corps brig from July 2010 to April 2011. The military contends the treatment at Quantico was proper, given Manning's classification as a maximum-security detainee who posed a risk of injury to himself or others. He was later moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he was re-evaluated and given a medium-security classification.
A United Nations investigator called the conditions of Manning's time at Quantico cruel, inhuman and degrading, but stopped short of calling it torture.
The 24-year-old native of Crescent, Okla., faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of aiding the enemy, the most serious of the 22 charges.
He is accused of sending hundreds of thousands of classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks while he was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.
The materials Manning is suspected of leaking include sensitive reports on foreign governments and leaders, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and a 2007 video clip of a U.S. helicopter crew gunning down 11 men later found to have included a Reuters news photographer and his driver. It was the video that garnered the most worldwide attention from the leak. As for the video clip, the Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately, having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons.