The Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking thousands of classified documents was formally charged Thursday with aiding the enemy, but he deferred entering a plea.
Observers said the move might be a sign his lawyers were negotiating a deal involving a guilty plea to lesser or fewer offenses.
Pfc. Bradley E. Manning spoke only briefly during the court-martial proceedings in a Fort Meade, Md., military courtroom. He told the judge, Col. Denise Lind, that he understood the 22 charges against him, including aiding the enemy and violations of the Espionage Act.
If convicted, Pfc. Manning could face life imprisonment, demotion and a dishonorable discharge.
Aiding the enemy carries a maximum sentence of death, but prosecutors have said they will not seek capital punishment in this case.
Col. Lind did not set a date for the trial but said there would be a hearing on several legal issues in the trial next month.
Pfc. Manning’s attorney, David E. Coombs, told the court his client did not wish to enter a plea at the moment. Pfc. Manning also declined to make a choice as to whether to be tried by a military judge alone, a jury of officers or a jury of officers and enlisted soldiers.
“The moment of truth has been put off,” said Eugene R. Fidell, a former military lawyer who teaches at Yale Law School.
“I would speculate that it is because they’re negotiating with prosecutors over a plea deal,” Mr. Fidell said in an interview.
Pfc. Manning is accused of providing the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks with two databases of military field reports - one from Iraq, one from Afghanistan - and a database of State Department cables to and from embassies around the world. The security breach is the largest leak of secret documents ever.
Pfc. Manning also is charged with giving WikiLeaks a video showing a strike by U.S. helicopters on a group of men in Baghdad that also killed a Reuters photographer and injured two children.
His supporters held a vigil for him outside the base, displaying signs calling for his release.
The protest “highlights divided opinions about the case,” said Steven Aftergood, an advocate for government transparency at the Federation of American Scientists.
“When Aldrich Ames was on trial for espionage, no one was outside the courthouse with signs saying ‘Free Aldrich,’” he added, referring to a CIA counterintelligence officer convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in 1994.
“There’s a section of public opinion that believes [Pfc. Manning] did more good than harm,” he said.