The court martial for Pfc. Bradley Manning, 25, the former Army intelligence analyst on trial for the most extensive leak of information in U.S. history, began in Maryland Monday.
Lawyers for the prosecution opened with an hour-long statement, accompanied by a slide show of documents, saying they will prove Manning knew what he was doing when he placed classified information “in the hands of the enemy,” through WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy website.
In brief opening remarks that followed, Manning’s attorney David Coombs described his client as “young, naive, but good intentioned.” Coombs said that Manning arrived in Iraq when he was “22-years-young,” hoping to make the country a safer place.
In February, Private Manning pleaded guilty to lesser versions of most of the charges he is now facing, and he confessed in detail to releasing the documents for which he could be sentenced to up to 20 years.
But he did not receive a deal, and prosecutors are taking the case to trial in the hope of convicting him of more serious offenses—including espionage and aiding the enemy—that could result in a life sentence.
During the government’s opening argument, Captain Joe Morrow, a prosecutor, said that this case is about what happens when “arrogance meets access to sensitive information,” and that Manning put his fellow soldiers at risk when he used his military training “to gain the notoriety he craved.” The government accused Manning of “systematically and indiscriminately” harvesting information, gathering it “in bulk” with “massive, massive downloads.”
The prosecution showed excerpts from several transcripts of chats between Manning and Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks. The United States has been unable to charge Assange with any crime related to WikiLeaks, which published hundreds of thousands of secret documents in 2010, including a video that showed U.S. soldiers shooting at unarmed civilians in Iraq.
Assange, who has called Manning a “political prisoner,” was granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government more than a year ago after Britain sought to extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sexual assault and rape accusations. Assange has denied the allegations.
Morrow presented a log from Manning’s personal computer dated May 11, 2010, showing that he downloaded a database with the personal information of every service member in Iraq—more than 74,000 in total. Morrow said that the government will show that by downloading this information, and turning it over for public release, Manning was providing foreign intelligence services with an effective phone book. He also cited communication found during the raid that killed bin Laden, in which the al Qaeda leader asked for this database.
Manning knew that the enemy would access this information, said Morrow.
The judge in this case, Colonel Denise Lind, has said in pretrial hearings that the government must prove that Manning intended to cause harm when he leaked the documents.
David Coombs, Manning’s attorney, offered a starkly different depiction of his client, who was flanked by family members in the courtroom on Monday. “He is not the typical soldier,” said Coombs, citing Manning’s custom dog tags that said “humanist” on the back. Coombs likened Manning’s value of human life to a religious belief.
Coombs also spoke of an event that affected his client: on Christmas Eve, 2009, an explosively-formed projectile (EFP) narrowly missed a U.S. convoy, striking a car with an Iraqi family. Following the attack, Manning “started to struggle,” said Coombs, both with concerns for Iraqi civilians, and with gender identity disorder.
In an effort to “help improve what he was seeing,” said Coombs, Manning began to select specific information that he believed the public should see, that could not be used against the U.S., and that would “make the world a better place.”
In pretrial hearings, Manning said that he had become disillusioned by a U.S. foreign policy he described as bent on “killing and capturing people,” as well as the “bloodlust” of an American crew that carried out a helicopter attack in 2007.
Manning’s trial is expected to last three months and include testimony from up to 150 witnesses.
NBC News’ Courtney Kube contributed to this report.