Bradley Manning trial may include Navy SEAL from Osama bin Laden raid

Prosecutors charge Pfc. Bradley Manning with 'aiding the enemy' in leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. They want to call as a witness a Navy SEAL involved in the Osama bin Laden raid.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted to a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Wednesday for a pretrial military hearing. Manning is charged with causing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to be published on the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks.

Of the 22 charges US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning faces for allegedly leaking classified information to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, none is more serious than “aiding the enemy” in wartime.

Although military prosecutors could have sought the death penalty on this charge – which violates both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) – they are pushing for a life sentence.

In a court-martial pretrial hearing Tuesday, Col. Denise Lind, the military judge in the case, ruled that the US government must prove that Manning knew he was aiding the enemy when he took steps to make public hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, State Department diplomatic cables, files on detainees at the Guantánamo Bay US naval base, other classified records, and battlefield video clips – the most controversial of which showed US attack helicopter pilots in Iraq killing what turned out to be a group of unarmed civilian men, including two journalists from the Reuters news agency.

Colonel Lind said the prosecution must show evidence that Manning had "reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the US," by an armed group like Al Qaeda or another nation, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday.

Prosecutors reportedly are preparing evidence – including testimony from a US Navy SEAL who was one of those involved in the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 – to show that the information leaked by Manning was found in Mr. bin Laden’s compound in Abbotttabad, Pakistan, and thus aided a terrorist organization.

As Manning’s pretrial hearing continued Wednesday, Lind ruled against the defense, which had tried to block such testimony on grounds that it would be prejudicial to Manning’s case.

The ruling means prosecutors can call the witness during the "merits," or main, phase of the trial. They otherwise could have used his testimony only for sentencing purposes, according to the Associated Press.

The witness has been publicly identified only as "John Doe" and as a Defense Department "operator," a designation given to SEALs. Prosecutors say he participated with SEAL Team Six in their assault on the compound which resulted in the death of bin Laden. Such testimony would help establish a chain of custody for the evidence from its recovery to its analysis by a computer expert.

Lind is weighing options for protecting the witness's identity, the AP reports. They could include moving the trial to a secure location to hear his testimony, or having him wear a disguise. Lind also must decide what limits to place on any defense cross-examination of “John Doe,” as well as three other unidentified "special witnesses," to protect national security.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first since a group pressing for more government transparency flouted a military ban by releasing a secretly-recorded audio clip of Manning's testimony in February, according to the AFP report.

"To say that the judge was unhappy about this violation of the rules of the court would be an understatement," a military spokeswoman told reporters covering the hearing.

As a result, mobile phones and recording devices, previously only banned inside the courtroom, are now outlawed in the press gallery as well, where the hearing is being broadcast, AFP reports.

"This media operation center is a privilege, not a requirement. Privileges can be taken away," the spokeswoman said.

Specifically, Manning is charged with “aiding the enemy; wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet knowing that it is accessible to the enemy; theft of public property or records; transmitting defense information; fraud and related activity in connection with computers; and for violating Army Regulations 25-2 ‘Information Assurance’ and 380-5 ‘Department of the Army Information Security Program.’ ”

In February, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges against him – specifically acknowledging that he had misused classified documents by sending them to WikiLeaks, the website founded by controversial Internet activist Julian Assange. Those 10 charges could result in a 20-year sentence.

Manning’s trial is scheduled to start June 3 at Fort Meade in Maryland. It could last for 12 weeks.

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