FORT MEADE — Lawyers in the court-martial of an Army private who sent more than 700,000 classified U.S. documents to WikiLeaks said Tuesday they have reached a deal that may eliminate the need for testimony from a member of the military team that killed Osama bin Laden. Prosecutors also agreed to accept Pfc. Bradley Manning’s guilty plea to a lesser version of one of the 22 counts he faces.
Under the agreement, both the prosecution and defense teams would acknowledge at Manning’s trial next month that there is digital evidence indicating bin Laden saw some of the material Manning released. The raid team member, presumably a Navy SEAL, was expected to testify that the evidence was recovered during a May 2011 raid on the al-Qaida leader’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The deal must be approved by the military judge Army Col. Denise Lind, who has been presiding over a series of pretrial hearings that ended Tuesday. She also will preside at the bench trial, which is scheduled to begin June 3 and run through the summer.
Earlier in the hearing, Army Maj. Ashden Fein told Lind that prosecutors had changed their minds about trying to convict Manning of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in connection with the release of a State Department cable known as Reykjavik-13. WilkiLeaks posted the cable in early 2010 about a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, summarizing U.S. Embassy discussions with Icelandic officials about the country’s financial troubles.
Manning has acknowledged sending the cable to WikiLeaks after he found it on a secure government computer network while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. According to his courtroom confession on Feb. 28, Manning believed the cable indicated the United States was refusing to help the Icelandic government “due to the lack of long-term geopolitical benefit.”
The cable was the basis for a charge alleging violation of a federal law, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Manning pleaded guilty in February to lesser versions of that and eight other offenses, acknowledging violations of military law that, in total, carry maximum prison term of 20 years.
Fein did not give a reason for the change, and prosecutors said they will still try to convict Manning of other serious offenses.
Manning, a 25-year-old Oklahoma native, is charged with indirectly aiding the enemy by causing classified material to be published on WikiLeaks. To prove that charge, punishable by a maximum life prison term, prosecutors must show that he knew the material would be seen by al-Qaida members. He has already admitted he downloaded the files from supposedly secure government networks and sent them to WikiLeaks while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2010.
Manning said in a February statement that he leaked the Afghan and Iraq battlefield reports, State Department cables and video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack that killed a Reuters news photographer and his driver, because he wanted the public to know how the American military was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with little regard for human life.
Lind also ruled that the trial will be closed for portions of the testimony of 24 witnesses to prevent spillage of classified information. She said an unusual “dry run” hearing with a sample witness on May 8 showed that alternatives to courtroom closure proposed by Manning’s defense team would not have prevented a spillage of sensitive information.
Lind said redacted transcripts of the closed portions of the trial will be made publicly available, but she didn’t say how long it will take to have the transcripts cleared for release.