FORT MEADE: Lawyers for the US soldier charged with passing a trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks accused the military Tuesday of withholding hundreds of emails over fears of a publicity nightmare.
The defense team for Private Bradley Manning, who could be jailed for life for “aiding the enemy” over the massive security breach, alleged that more than 1,300 messages were ignored by prosecutors for at least six months.
The emails relate to the conditions that the 24-year-old trooper was held in military detention at Quantico, Virginia, where he was sent after a spell in a US Army jail in Kuwait following his arrest when on duty in Iraq in 2010.
Manning's civilian lawyer David Coombs told a pre-trial hearing that 84 emails were released to the defense team in July last year, but he later discovered that 1,290 other such messages had not been passed on to him.
The government “chose to let these emails collect dust somewhere,” Coombs said on the first day of the three-day hearing at a military base in Fort Meade, Maryland, 48 kilometers from the US capital.
The 84 emails were eventually released to the defense on July 25 last year, the court heard, but military prosecutors then announced that 600 other messages were given to Manning's legal team on Monday, ahead of the hearing.
“It is the defense position that the government has been playing word games,” Coombs said, implying that the emails were held back because the government had adopted a deliberately narrow definition of their relevance to the trial.
The soldier's lawyers argue that Manning, who was an intelligence analyst in the army, was mistreated at Quantico, and even alleged Tuesday that he had been ordered by guards to stand at attention while completely naked.
Coombs then took aim at top Marine officers responsible for running the jail, who he said had put their concerns about bad publicity ahead of their duty to provide fair treatment to Manning.
The emails go as high up the chain as General George Flynn, the then commanding general of the US Marine Corps, who had insisted that Manning be placed on suicide watch, according to Coombs.
Top officers at Quantico regularly sent emails to Flynn informing him of Manning's detention conditions, which the defense says were unnecessarily harsh, and told the Marine commander who was visiting the jailed WikiLeaks suspect.
The military “kept Manning in maximum POI (prevention of injury)” custody “because they didn't want any negative publicity,” Coombs said, reading out a document that placed media risks at the top of eight concerns at Quantico.
After his detention at Quantico from July 2010 to April 2011, Manning was transferred to a prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was placed under less restrictive conditions.
If the court finds he was abused, the case could potentially be thrown out, or any eventual sentence reduced.
However, military counsel at Fort Meade denied the allegations and said the emails amounted to nothing more than “argument and conjecture” among the military commanders handling Manning's detention.
“They were concerned about public affairs (media handling) but they were also concerned about Private First Class Manning,” said Major Ashden Fein, the lead counsel for the government, contesting Coombs's claims.
Colonel Denise Lind, the case judge, however said the months-long delay over disclosure of the emails remained unexplained.
“I still wonder why you waited till July,” Lind asked Fein, before ruling that she would examine the estimated 700 emails from the original bundle that remain in government hands, before deciding if they too should be handed over.
The publishing by WikiLeaks of official documents, including military logs over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, triggered a diplomatic firestorm that hugely embarrassed American officials and rankled the nation's allies.
Manning, who is attending this week's hearing, has not yet entered a plea in the case and his trial now looks set to start in February -- five months later than originally thought.