- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2011

FORT MEADE, Md. — The civilian attorney for Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of leaking classified documents published by the WikiLeaks website, asked the presiding officer at his pretrial hearing Friday to step aside.

Army Lt. Col. Paul Almanza’s civilian occupation as a Justice Department prosecutor was the chief reason defense lawyer David Coombs gave in asking him to recuse himself. The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Manning, 23, is charged with aiding the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents that ended up on the website. At the time, he was a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad.

The case has spawned an international movement in support of Manning, who is seen by anti-war activists as a hero who helped expose American mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. To others he is a villain, even a traitor, who betrayed his oath of loyalty by deliberately spilling his government’s secrets.

Friday’s hearing is to determine whether Manning will face a court-martial. If his case goes to trial and he is convicted, Manning could face life in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.

Almanza said he hasn’t formed an opinion about Manning’s guilt or innocence. He did not make a formal decision before taking a noon recess.

A member of the prosecution team, Capt. Ashden Fein, said the government opposes recusal.

“The United States does not believe you’ve exhibited any bias in any form and that you can render a fair and impartial decision,” Fein said.

Coombs also argued that Almanza had wrongly denied a defense request to call as witnesses the “original classification authorities” who first decided to classify as secret the material WikiLeaks published.

“Let’s put witnesses on the stand,” he said. “Why is this stuff classified? Why is it going to cause harm?”

Dressed in his camouflage Army fatigues, Manning sat at the defense table showing little expression. He occasionally twirled a pen between his thumb and finger.

The hearing is open to the public, but with limited seating. A small number of reporters were present but not allowed to record or photograph the proceedings.

A U.S. military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began that the presiding officer is likely to make his recommendation on whether to court-martial Manning within eight days after the hearing ends. The hearing is expected to last over the weekend and possibly well into next week.

The legal expert, who could not be identified under Army ground rules, said Manning is to be present for all proceedings, including sessions closed to the public for consideration of classified material.

The site of the hearing, Fort Meade, is home to U.S. Cyber Command, the organization whose mission includes protecting computer networks like the one Manning allegedly breached by illegally downloading huge numbers of classified documents in Iraq.

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