Defence lawyer tells hearing soldier wants to offer guilty plea for some offences in US government's case against him

Bradley Manning, the US soldier who is facing life in prison for allegedly having leaked hundreds of thousands of state secrets to WikiLeaks, has indicated publicly for the first time that he accepts responsibility for handing some information to the whistleblower website.

Manning's defence lawyer, David Coombs, told a pre-trial hearing ahead of his court martial that the soldier wanted to offer a guilty plea for some offences contained within the US government's case against him. This is the first time the intelligence analyst has given any public indication that he accepts that he played a part in the breach of confidential US material.

The statement is technically known as "pleading by exceptions and substitutions". By taking this legal route, Manning is not pleading guilty to any of the 22 charges brought against him, and nor is he making a plea bargain. He is asking the court to rule on whether his plea accepting limited responsibility is admissible in the case. Coombs set out the details in a statement that was posted on his website after the hearing.

Should the judge presiding over Manning's court martial allow the soldier to plead guilty by "exceptions and substitutions", army prosecutors could still press on with all 22 counts. In this instance, a full trial would go ahead next year. Manning would continue to face the most serious charge of "aiding the enemy", which carries a maximum sentence of life in military custody with no chance of parole.

The trial has been scheduled to start on 4 February and to last for six weeks. In court this week, Manning also indicated that he had decided that the trial should be conducted by a judge sitting alone. The soldier has rejected the option of having a jury.

According to a report of the pre-trial hearing by Kevin Gosztola of theliberal website Firedoglake, Manning's offer of a plea was intended to simplify the evidentiary element of the trial. By accepting responsibility for transferring some information, the soldier would avoid pleading to more serious offences including breaches of the Espionage Act – the "aiding the enemy" count – and Computer Fraud and Abuses Act.

What Manning admits remains unclear. It could be that he is accepting responsibility for some of the WikiLeaks documents but not others, or to some form of electronic transfer but not others.

What is clear that this is an important step in the legal process, as Manning has for the first time attached his own name to the WikiLeaks dump. The website, in association with international newspapers including the Guardian, published hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world as well as warlogs from Iraq and Afghanistan and video footage of US military actions that caused civilian deaths.

In defending Manning, Coombs has not so far attempted to argue that the soldier had nothing to do with WikiLeaks. Instead, he has tended to concentrate on highlighting inconsistencies in the US government's case and exposing the absence of care the soldier was afforded by his superiors while he was working as an intelligence analyst in a forward operating base outside Baghdad.

© Guardian News and Media 2012