An Army prosecutor told a military judge Monday that Pfc. Bradley Manning drew on his military training to harvest hundreds of thousands of classified documents from military computers and dump them on the Internet, where he knew their release would endanger fellow U.S. soldiers.
An attorney for Manning described the 25-year-old soldier as naive but well-intentioned, and said he released the materials because "he was hoping to make the world a better place."
The long-awaited court-martial of the onetime Marylander, who is at the center of the largest security breach in U.S. history, began at Fort Meade on Monday with opening statements from both sides.
Manning, who served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, has admitted leaking classified documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The materials included diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and gunsight video footage of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians in Baghdad.
Capt. Joe Morrow, one of five prosecutors trying the case, said the information "has great value to our adversaries and, in particular, our enemies." He said Manning had "used his military training to gain the notoriety he craved."
David E. Coombs, the leader of Manning's three-member defense team, said the soldier had deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2009 hoping to keep Americans and Iraqis safe.
But on Christmas Eve, Coombs said, Manning was in a convoy that saw a carload of Iraqis blown up by a roadside bomb. At least one was killed. Manning watched members of his unit celebrate having missed the blast.
The incident changed Manning, Coombs said. The soldier began releasing material that he thought would help the public understand what was happening in Iraq.
"He was 22 years old," Coombs said. "He was young. He was a little naive in believing that the information that he selected could actually make a difference. But he was good-intentioned."
Manning, faces charges that include violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy. If convicted of aiding the enemy, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
He has pleaded guilty to lesser charges related to leaking the material, for which he faces up to 20 years in prison. He reaffirmed those pleas Monday.
The diminutive Manning, wearing a dark green Army dress uniform, sat quietly as the lawyers presented their arguments before Army Col. Denise R. Lind. The trial is expected to last up to 12 weeks.
The government called three witnesses Monday. Two special agents with the Army Criminal Investigative Division described traveling to Iraq after Manning's arrest to gather evidence and interview him and members of his unit.
Manning's roommate in Iraq, Spec. Eric Baker, said Manning was often on his computer. During cross-examination by Coombs, Baker agreed that he and Manning spent little time together, and Manning spent little time with other members of the unit in Iraq.
In pretrial hearings, Coombs sought to portray Manning as a troubled young man who struggled with gender identity disorder, was isolated from his fellow service members and should not have been given access to the classified materials. On Monday, he spoke again of Manning's "private struggle with gender."
Morrow said the government would call as witnesses officials from the Defense and State departments who are involved with classifying documents, one of Manning's military instructors and members of his unit. He said an Army aviator would describe how the video could be used by a foreign adversary.
Morrow said he would also introduce chat logs between Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and Manning and Adrian Lamo, the computer hacker who turned him in to the FBI.
Outside the main gate to Fort Meade Monday morning, a few dozen Manning supporters held signs reading "Free Brad" and other messages. A white box truck emblazoned "WikiLeaks Mobile Information Collection Unit" and "Release Bradley Manning" stood in the parking lot of the base media center.
When WikiLeaks and several news organizations began publishing the excerpts from the leaked materials in 2010, government officials said the candid political assessments and battlefield information they contained would compromise U.S. diplomacy and put American lives at risk.
Manning's attorneys say the release endangered no one. Coombs said Manning released materials that did not reveal intelligence sources, as well as reports on battlefield incidents that already had happened and with which the enemy was familiar.
Damage assessments performed by the government after the leak remain classified, and prosecutors have argued to keep them out of the trial.
Manning, who lived with an aunt in Potomac and studied at Montgomery College before he enlisted in 2007, was arrested in Baghdad in May 2010. He has been detained since the arrest.
He has become a hero to some anti-war activists, who say footage of the 2007 Apache helicopter attack appears to show evidence of a war crime.
The attack in Baghdad left 12 dead, including a Reuters journalist and his driver. In the video, released by WikiLeaks under the title "Collateral Murder," the American helicopter crew can be heard laughing and referring to Iraqis as "dead bastards."
Coombs said Manning was aware of the attack, and learned of the video from a member of his unit.
Supporters say Manning deserves some credit for fueling the Arab Spring, the wave of popular revolts that toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has roiled Syria and unsettled governments elsewhere.
The materials released by WikiLeaks included field reports from Afghanistan with details of previously unreported civilian deaths and evidence of Pakistani and Iranian support of the Taliban. There also were field reports from Iraq with details of previously unreported civilian deaths and reports of abuse, torture, rape and murder by Iraqi security forces.
Also released were diplomatic cables sent from embassies, consulates and other U.S. missions to the State Department between 1966 and 2010 containing analyses and assessments of foreign leaders and governments and economic and political conditions.
Manning's supporters say he should be protected as a whistleblower.