FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) - The 23-year-old soldier accused of slipping a trove of national security secrets to the WikiLeaks website sat quietly at the defense table in the opening session of his pretrial hearing Friday as government and defense lawyers tangled over whether the presiding officer can be impartial.
David Coombs, the civilian attorney for Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been in military detention since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010, pushed for the presiding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, to step aside.
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.
Almanza said he believes he is unbiased, but he did not make a formal decision on the matter before taking a noon recess.
Manning took notes during the opening session of his hearing at this Army base between Washington and Baltimore. Dressed in Army camouflage fatigues and wearing dark-rimmed glasses, Manning sometimes twirled a pen in his fingers as the hearing got off to a slow start.
The hearing is to determine whether Manning will face a court-martial. If tried and convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.
During the opening hours of Friday's session, neither the government nor Manning's defense team presented arguments on the substance of the charges against him. They instead got entangled in a dispute over Almanza's impartiality.
Almanza's civilian occupation as a Justice Department prosecutor was the chief reason Coombs gave in asking him to recuse himself. The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
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. Instead, Almanza has chosen to accept unsworn statements from those people, Coombs said.
Coombs said the decision eliminated the defense's ability to question why the leaked material was classified.
"Let's put witnesses on the stand," he said. "Why is this stuff classified? Why is it going to cause harm?"
Manning, 23, is charged with aiding the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents that ended up on the anti-secrecy website.
Almanza, who is an Army reservist, said he hasn't formed an opinion about Manning's guilt or innocence.
During the hearing's opening moments, Manning responded to a series of questions from Almanza. After summarizing the charges against Manning, Almanza asked if he understood them. "Yes, sir," Manning replied.
Asked whether he had any questions about the charges, Manning replied, "No, sir."
The hearing is open to the public but with limited seating in the courtroom. A small number of reporters were present but not allowed to record or photograph the proceedings. Manning was not seen arriving in the courtroom because he was brought in before journalists were allowed to enter.
A U.S. military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began Friday 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 through 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.
Fort Meade, located between Washington and Baltimore, is, ironically, 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.
He is suspected of giving the documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website that last year began publishing the materials.
Manning's lawyer asserts that the documents' release did little actual harm.
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.
Manning's supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organizing a rally for Saturday. By midday, about 50 protesters had assembled outside the main entrance, and a few dozen protesters marched down a road along the base carrying neon orange signs that read, "The Bradley Manning Support Network."
The hearing at Fort Meade is intended to yield a recommendation to Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, on whether Manning should be court-martialed. Linnington could choose other courses, including applying an administrative punishment or dismissing some or all of the 22 counts against Manning.
The Manning case has led to a debate over the broader issue of whether the government's system for classifying and shielding information has grown so unwieldy that it is increasingly vulnerable to intrusions.
Absent from the Meade proceedings will be Assange, who runs WikiLeaks from England. He is fighting in British courts to block a Swedish request that he be extradited to face trial over rape allegations.
A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, and WikiLeaks is straining under an American financial embargo.
The materials Manning is accused of leaking include hundreds of thousands of sensitive items: Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a classified military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.
At the time, Manning, a native of Crescent, Okla., was a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, was detained in Iraq in May 2010 and moved to a Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Va., in July. Nine months later, the Army sent him to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., after a series of claims by Manning of unlawful pretrial punishment.
When it filed formal charges against Manning in March 2011, the Army accused him of using unauthorized software on government computers to extract classified information, illegally download it and transmit the data for public release by what the Army termed "the enemy."
The first large publication of the documents by WikiLeaks in July 2010, some 77,000 military records on the war in Afghanistan, made global headlines. But the material provided only limited revelations, including unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings as well as covert operations against Taliban figures.
In October 2010, WikiLeaks published a batch of nearly 400,000 documents that dated from early 2004 to Jan. 1, 2010. They were written mostly by low-ranking officers in the field cataloging thousands of battles with insurgents and roadside bomb attacks, plus equipment failures and shootings by civilian contractors.
A month later, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of State Department documents, including candid comments from world leaders.