Updates From Bradley Manning’s Pretrial Hearing

December 16, 2011
For more, watch our films WikiSecrets and The Private Life of Bradley Manning.

Bradley Manning is making his first court appearance today, 18 months after he was accused of leaking half a million classified documents to WikiLeaks. FRONTLINE’s Arun Rath is at Fort Meade for the hearing, known as an Article 32 proceeding, which precedes a court-martial. Rath will be sending us regular reports from the scene; you can also follow him on Twitter at @ArunRath.

10:40 am — Bradley Manning’s civilian attorney has demanded that the presiding officer in his pre-court martial hearing recuse himself.  After the initial pro forma exchanges that opened the Article 32 hearing, David E. Coombs peppered the judge with questions about his past experience, influences, and knowledge of the Manning case.  He then launched into an animated argument for the investigating officer to recuse himself, waving his hands and occasionally pounding the podium.  Coombs harped on the investigating officer’s position as a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice, and the DOJ’s ongoing investigation of Manning as a complicating factor.  He even suggested the possibility of a back channel deal with the DOJ for a plea deal to get Manning to “go after Julian Assange.” Coombs asserted the officer’s decision to deny many of the witnesses requested by the defense while allowing most of the government’s witnesses demonstrated a clear bias, referring to the investigating officer as “another prosecutor.” He also claimed the officer’s refusal to close the hearing had guaranteed prejudice against Manning.

12:18 pm — The prosecution has responded to Bradley Manning’s lawyer’s request that Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the presiding officer in the Article 32 hearing, recuse himself.  Not surprisingly, the prosecution weighed in support of the officer’s impartiality.

Bradley Manning’s civilian lawyer, David E. Coombs, jumped on the chance to rebut.  He seized again on Almanza’s work for the Department of Justice (DOJ), pointing that he had received emails as recently as last week from Almanza’s DOJ email address.

The remarkable scene turned the court on its head — it was as if a defense attorney grilled a judge on cross-examination.  Coombs then began to essentially condemn the proceedings, arguing that they were thoroughly biased and sloppily handled. Finally, Coombs turned away from the judge to face the audience, repeating the phrase, “Is this the best we can do?”  The investigating officer, somewhat taken aback, asked, “Mr. Coombs, who are you addressing?”  “All the public,” Coombs replied.

The court is in recess again as the investigating officer meets with his legal adviser and decides whether to recuse himself.

2:30 pm — Lt. Col Paul Almanza, the investigating officer presiding over Bradley Manning’s Article 32 hearing denied the defense’s request that he recuse himself.  He also denied the defense request for a stay in the hearing.

The defense is filing a writ with the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to contest the decision.

The Bradley Manning in court today is hard to recognize compared to the all the personal photos we’ve seen of him on FRONTLINE, though that might have been due in part to the poor image quality on the closed circuit feed inside the Fort Meade Media Center.  Manning’s hair seems darker.  He’s wearing glasses with big, geeky black rims, probably standard prison-issue.  He looks like he’s gained weight, more like a classic Army private than the slight, waifish kid we saw in those photos.

Most of the time he sits calmly with hands folded, occasionally fidgeting a little with a pen in between taking notes.  His answers to questions — just “yes, sir” — are clear and strong, if a little quiet.  Occasionally a half-smile has crossed his face when his lawyer made a dramatic point.

3:55 pm — The hearing has adjourned for the day with no new developments: Two more brief sessions that lasted less than 10 minutes combined dealt mainly with procedural issues.  I would estimate that easily 80 percent of the day was spent in recess.

After the hearing, Arun Rath shared his insights with PBS NewsHour:

Bonus: Watch this rare footage of Manning at a January 2010 “Hackerspace” party at Boston University from our film WikiSecrets.

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