FORT MEADE, Maryland — A US soldier accused of passing a trove of documents to WikiLeaks asked a military judge Wednesday to allow him to cite evidence showing his leak caused no damage to the United States.
A defense lawyer for US Army private Bradley Manning argued that his client took care to disclose files that would not harm US interests and subsequent government reports have shown no major “injury” was caused.
But prosecutors countered that the potential harm caused by the disclosures is irrelevant to the court-martial and that Manning committed a crime simply by leaking classified information without permission.
Manning’s lead attorney, David Coombs, faced tough questions at the pre-trial hearing from Judge Denise Lind, who said at one point the defense’s argument was “confusing.”
“How is something that happened after the fact (leak) relevant?” Lind asked.
The judge made no ruling on the issue Wednesday but if she bars evidence related to the possible harm caused by the leaks, it would represent a major blow to Manning’s defense.
The trial is due to begin in September for Manning, 24, who faces a possible life sentence if convicted of aiding the enemy by giving hundreds of thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling website.
The baby-faced soldier, who attended the hearing clad in a dress uniform, was a low-ranking intelligence analyst deployed in Iraq when he was arrested in May 2010 and accused of releasing thousands of classified military logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and State Department diplomatic cables.
In a setback for Manning, the judge on Wednesday dismissed a request to dismiss two of 22 counts that charge him with gaining “unauthorized access” to classified documents.
Manning’s lawyer had maintained that his client had permission to download secret diplomatic cables and that he had not circumvented any electronic “gate.”
But military prosecutors said that by using software that was not authorized to retrieve a huge cache of sensitive files, Manning had committed a serious crime.
In papers filed with the court, Manning’s lawyer said if the judge prohibits any discussion of the possible damage done by the leaks, the defense would be hamstrung when trying to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.
It would be arbitrary to limit the defense’s ability to question witnesses “simply because the Government does not wish for (jury) panel members to know about America’s worst-kept secret — that the alleged leaks did little to no harm to national security,” Coombs wrote.
Internal assessments by the State Department and other government agencies about the effect of the leaks are crucial to Manning’s defense against charges that his actions could have harmed US national security, he said.
“The reasonableness of his belief that the information could not cause damage is buttressed by the damage assessments which say that the leaks did not cause damage to the United States,” Coombs wrote.
He said it was not enough for the government to assert that harm “could” result from the leaks.
“Anything ‘could’ happen — the world ‘could’ end tomorrow, Kim Kardashian ‘could’ be elected president of the United States of America; I ‘could’ win the lottery,” he wrote.
Manning’s lawyers should be able to question whether assertions that the leaked information could cause damage to the United States is “remote, speculative, far-fetched and fanciful,” he said.
The defense posts its legal motions online with sensitive references blacked out, but military prosecutors in the case do not publicly release their court filings.
Reporters are allowed to watch the proceedings and take notes but cannot make any audio recording and the court does not release any copies of the judge’s rulings or other relevant documents.