Manning a traitor or a hero? Court hearing for WikiLeaks warrior

A year-and-a-half after his arrest, PFC Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of disclosing thousands of secret US military documents and cables to WikiLeaks, has made his first court appearance Friday.

At the beginning of the Friday’s pretrial hearing, Manning’s lawyer David Coombs has asked the presiding officer to step down, saying that his involvement in a civilian criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks might affect his judgments. Army Lt Col Paul Almanza called a recess to consider the request.­

The 23-year-old former intelligence analyst faces 22 charges of violating the military code, from theft of records to “aiding the enemy”.

The hearing at Fort Meade in Maryland, which is expected to last up to a week, is to determine whether there is enough evidence for a court-martial.

And if found guilty of what the US government considers endangering American troops and allies, Manning could face life in prison – or possibly death.

The army private turned whistleblower when revealed the video which showed US army pilots in Iraq eagerly firing shots at innocent people on the ground.

The US government suspects that military analyst Manning exposed 250,000 American diplomatic cables on the internet, initially saving them on his private computer, and then passing them to WikiLeaks.

Other materials, it is alleged, included US Army reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, some of which revealed civilian deaths, which had never been reported about.

"There have been some criminal acts committed by US government employees and those employees have never been held accountable for them," Ann Wright, a former US Army colonel and ex-diplomat says.

In the past 18 months that Bradley Manning has been behind bars, he has become something of a symbol. To his supporters he represents the extreme secrecy and lack of transparency within the US government. The documents that he helped to make public reveal that the US harbors some dark secrets.

"It shows that in the last decade there's been a real lessening of the standards in diplomatic reporting, and in our military that the real disregard for life of torture, of assassinations, of executions, has become more of the norm," says Wright.

And for bringing all this to light, he is regarded by many as a hero.

"He has impacted governments around the world, he's lived through the veil of the US Empire to show us what we really are," political activist Kevin Zeese says.  

Hundreds of activists are planning to demonstrate outside Fort Meade this weekend in support of Manning.

Michael Patterson is an Iraq War veteran. He says seeing this video changed his life.

"Basically, I got out of the military because of Bradley Manning," says Michael Patterson. “When the WikiLeaks stuff started coming out, that's when I kind of hit that wall, and basically I decided that I wasn't going to do this anymore."

But today, Manning is paying the price. He has been locked up behind bars as a “maximum custody detainee” subject to solitary confinement and forced nudity, which some argue are forms of torture.  

"He was being treated as if he has already been convicted and the punishment was going to be a very brutal punishment," Ann Wright says.

He is now charged with aiding the enemy. Although which enemy is not stated. His critics say he put American lives in jeopardy.

"Just because you don't like the county's foreign policy, doesn't mean you can out it to the planet.  That doesn't make you a truth-teller. That makes you a traitor," says Seton Motley, president of Less Government.

As Manning finally gets his day in court, his supporters say the only thing he is guilty of is telling the truth.

"He woke a lot of people up to the realities of the world we're in and he deserves a medal,” Michael Patterson believes.

"If the truth is undermining our national security, then there is something wrong with the truth,” Kevin Zeese adds.

Manning has pleaded not guilty to all charges.