December 16th, 2011
10:10 AM ET

BREAKING: Wikileak suspect wants recusal

From Brian Todd and Larry Shaughnessy at Fort Meade

A hearing for Bradley Manning, the Army private suspected of being behind the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history, began Friday morning but almost immediately went into recess after Manning's attorney asked the investigating officer to recuse himself.

Attorney David Coombs said Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, the presiding officer, should step down.

Among Coombs four objections was that Almanza, an Army reservist, had a conflict of interest with his civilian job with the Justice Department, which is investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks posted hundreds of thousands of classified documents on Afghanistan, Iraq and diplomatic exchanges.

The United States accuses Manning, who turned 24 on Saturday, of violating military code, ranging from theft of records to aiding the enemy.

The latter charge is likely, experts say, to land Manning in prison for life. But, if a general sees fit, the law allows that Manning could be eligible for the death penalty.

Manning's Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing that will determine whether enough evidence exists to merit a court-martial, was expected to last a week but could be delayed if Almanza recuses himself.

Both Almanza and the prosecution wanted a recess.

Coombs objected to Almanza's job as a prosecutor for the Justice Department because Manning could be called as a witness in the federal case against Assange.

He objected to Almanza only granting the defense four out of 28 witnesses they requested who were not on the prosecution list.

Coombs said Almanza denied a defense request that the Article 32 hearing be closed to prevent information that might later be ruled inadmissible in court to get out publicly and possible taint a future jury.  He also objected to Almanza's willingness to accept unsworn statements.

Manning had been held at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas and was transported for the hearing to Fort George Meade, where the National Security Agency has its offices.

He appeared in the white-walled military courtroom Friday in thick glasses and the Army's camouflage combat uniform. His hair was darker and longer than in the photos of him that have circulated widely on the Internet.

When he responded to formality questions, he sounded confident and strong, in contrast to an image of a soldier who had been mistreated in the brig, as Coombs alleged.

Coombs would not say whether his client intended to speak at the hearing. So far, Manning has kept mum about the staggering allegations against him.

Coombs, also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, has a reputation for creative military lawyering, his contemporaries told CNN. He is also an active blogger. He's been posting about the Manning case, including his client's alleged mistreatment at Quantico, since taking the case in 2010.

An attorney for the Bradley Manning Support Network says the group has paid about $150,000 in expenses toward Manning's defense, money raised mostly in small donated increments online.

Earlier this month, Coombs hinted on his blog at how he might defend Manning. He filed in court record, and then blogged, a kind of witness wish list.  Coombs said it described military personnel who, if he could call them, would testify that Manning behaved like an unhinged, potentially dangerous soldier on base in Iraq. Manning's superiors repeatedly missed chances to remove him from his intelligence job or revoke his security clearance, the document said.

A few days later, Coombs posted another filing protesting the military's apparent rejection of all but 10 of his requested witnesses. The military would not comment before the hearing.

"If Coombs uses the defense - the 'It's not my fault, they didn't stop me' - that's not going to fly with a military jury. That's not even a defense," said Michael Waddington, a criminal defense attorney who has tried at least 150 Article 32 hearings and many court-martial trials.

"The problem is that (the defense) is not really addressing the charges themselves. You're not saying, 'I didn't leak anything, you can't prove it,' " Waddington said.

Read Ashley Fantz's preview of the case here

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