NEW: Proceedings have adjourned until Saturday
He says the presiding officer is prejudicial
Manning faces charges of violating military code ranging from records theft to aiding the enemy
Manning made his first public appearance in court since his arrest 18 months ago
A hearing for Bradley Manning, the Army private suspected of being behind the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history, went into hours of recess almost immediately after getting under way Friday, as Manning’s attorney asked the investigating officer to recuse himself.
The request was denied Friday afternoon. Defense attorney David Coombs is appealing the decision, submitting an “extraordinary writ” to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
In an aggressive opening move, Coombs alleged that Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the investigating officer, may be prejudiced and should step down.
Among Coombs’ four objections was that Almanza, an Army reservist, has a conflict of interest because of his civilian job with the Justice Department, which is investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
WikiLeaks posted hundreds of thousands of classified documents on Afghanistan, Iraq and diplomatic exchanges.
“I don’t believe I’m biased,” Almanza said, defending his Justice Department job as being in a different division that handles child exploitation and obscenities.
The United States has charged Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, with 22 counts of violating military code, ranging from the theft of records to aiding the enemy. Experts say conviction on the latter charge would be likely to land Manning in prison for life. But, if a general sees fit, the law would allow Manning to be eligible for the death penalty.
Manning’s Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing that will determine whether enough evidence exists to merit a court-martial, is expected to last at least a week.
Most of Friday was spent in recess as Coombs challenged Almanza. Proceedings resumed after Almanza ruled against the motion for recusal but only briefly before adjourning until Saturday morning.
Coombs objected to Almanza’s job as a prosecutor for the Justice Department because Manning could be called as a witness in the federal case against Assange.
He also objected to Almanza granting the defense only four out of 28 witnesses they requested who were not on the prosecution list.
Coombs said Almanza denied a defense request that the Article 32 hearing be closed to prevent information that might later be ruled inadmissible in court from getting out publicly and possibly tainting a future jury. He also objected to Almanza’s willingness to accept unsworn statements.
Manning had been held at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas and was transported for the hearing to Fort Meade, where the National Security Agency has its offices. Outside the post, several dozen of Manning’s supporters gathered with signs and placards. Supporters are expected to turn out again Saturday for a march and rally to mark Manning’s 24th birthday, according to a statement from the Bradley Manning Support Network.
Friday was the first time Manning has appeared in public since his arrest a year and a half ago. In the white-walled military courtroom Friday, Manning sat with Coombs and two military attorneys. He wore thick-framed glasses and the Army’s camouflage combat uniform. His hair was darker and longer than in photos of him that have circulated widely on the Internet.
When he responded to formality questions, he sounded confident and strong, in contrast to an image of a soldier who had been mistreated in the brig, as Coombs has alleged.
Coombs would not say whether his client intended to speak at the hearing. Manning has kept mum about the staggering allegations against him.
Coombs, also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, has a reputation for creative military lawyering, his contemporaries said. He is also an active blogger. He’s been posting about the Manning case, including his client’s alleged mistreatment at Quantico, since taking the case in 2010.
An attorney for the Bradley Manning Support Network said the group has paid about $150,000 in expenses toward Manning’s defense, money raised mostly in small donated increments online.
If Manning did leak any documents, they are documents that should not have been classified, Coombs argues.
It’s a point that none other than then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seemed to support during a news conference shortly after Manning’s arrest, though he never said the documents ought to have been classified.
“Problems identified and the issues raised in these documents relating to the war in Afghanistan have been well known in and out of government for some time,” Gates said in 2010. “These documents represent a mountain of raw data and individual impressions, most several years old, devoid of context or analysis. They do not represent official positions or policy. And they do not, in my view, fundamentally call into question the efficacy of our current strategy in Afghanistan.”
But others have taken a more serious stance on the impact of the documents’ release.
“They might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” said Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the same news conference. “Disagree with the war all you want, but don’t put those who willingly go into harm’s way even further in harm’s way just to satisfy your need to make a point.”
The fallout from the leaked national security documents and how much damage was wrought will be a key point of contention in Manning’s case.
This month, Coombs hinted on his blog at how he might defend Manning. He filed in court records, and then blogged, a kind of witness wish list. Coombs said it described military personnel who, if he could call them, would testify that Manning behaved like an unhinged, potentially dangerous soldier on base in Iraq. Manning’s superiors repeatedly missed chances to remove him from his intelligence job or revoke his security clearance, the document said.
A few days later, Coombs posted another filing protesting the military’s apparent rejection of all but 10 of his requested witnesses. The military would not comment before the hearing.
“If Coombs uses the defense – the ‘It’s not my fault; they didn’t stop me’ – that’s not going to fly with a military jury. That’s not even a defense,” said Michael Waddington, a criminal defense attorney who has tried at least 150 Article 32 hearings and many court-martial trials.
“The problem is that (the defense) is not really addressing the charges themselves. You’re not saying, ‘I didn’t leak anything. You can’t prove it,’ ” Waddington said.
CNN’s Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.