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Bradley Manning court-martial starts: key points in the WikiLeaks case (+video)

Pfc. Bradley Manning, whose trial begins Monday, is accused of passing more than 700,000 government and military documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

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First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told The Wall Street Journal, “His conduct in my view was neither lawful nor admirable, but the decision to persist in this prosecution seems unduly severe.”

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Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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On the other side, prosecutors have said Manning must be held accountable: “Private First Class Manning was a US analyst who we trained and trusted to use multiple intelligence systems ... and he used that training to defy our trust,” said Maj. Ashden Fein, a prosecutor in the case, in one pretrial hearing.

Manning, he said, “knowingly engaged in a six-month-long criminal enterprise of harvesting classified information” to send to WikiLeaks, “while knowing and understanding that enemies would have access to the information.”

Some former prosecutors told The Washington Post it could be difficult to prove intent to harm the US.

“A lot of times, you think something is damaging,” said Baruch Weiss, a former federal prosecutor and an expert on the Espionage Act, “and the reality proves to be otherwise.”

But Ms. Goitein said that under a ruling by Lind, prosecutors will have to prove only that Manning had “reason to believe” that the documents disclosed could be used to harm the US or aid a foreign power. They need not prove that he intended to harm the US.

“I suspect that the government can meet this burden on at least some of the counts,” Goitein told the Post.

The material that WikiLeaks began publishing in 2010 documented complaints of Iraqi detainee abuses, contained a US tally of civilian deaths in Iraq, and described weak US support for the government of Tunisia – a disclosure that Manning supporters said encouraged the popular uprising that ousted the Tunisian president in 2011 and helped trigger the Middle Eastern pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

In pretrial hearings, Manning also acknowledged sending WikiLeaks unclassified video of a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack that killed civilians, including a Reuters photographer. An internal military investigation concluded the troops reasonably mistook the camera equipment for weapons, while WikiLeaks dubbed the video "Collateral Murder."

The release of the cables and video embarrassed the US and its allies. The Obama administration has said it threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America's relations with other governments, but the specific amount of damage hasn't been publicly revealed and probably won't be during the trial.

Much of the evidence is classified, which means large portions of the trial are likely to be closed to reporters and the public. The judge tested alternatives to closing the courtroom, such as using code words and unclassified summaries, but she said it didn't work.

About 20 Manning supporters demonstrated Monday morning in the rain outside the visitor gate at Fort Meade in Maryland, where the court-martial is taking place. They waved signs reading "free Bradley Manning" and "protect the truth," while chanting, "What do want? Free Bradley. When do we want it? Now." 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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