FORT MEADE — A military judge cleared the way Wednesday for a member of the team that raided Osama bin Laden’s compound to testify at the trial of an Army private charged in a massive leak of U.S. secrets to the WikiLeaks website.
Col. Denise Lind ruled for the prosecution during a court-martial pretrial hearing for Pfc. Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, near Baltimore.
Prosecutors say the witness, presumably a Navy SEAL, collected digital evidence showing that the al-Qaida leader requested and received from an associate some of the documents Manning has acknowledged sending to WikiLeaks.
Defense attorneys had argued that proof of receipt wasn’t relevant to whether Manning aided the enemy, the most serious charge he faces, punishable by life imprisonment.
The judge disagreed.
“The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the intelligence is given to and received by the enemy,” Lind said.
The ruling means prosecutors can call the witness during the “merits,” or main, phase of the trial. They otherwise could have used his testimony only for sentencing purposes.
The witness has been publicly identified only as “John Doe” and as a Defense Department “operator,” a designation given to SEALs. Prosecutors say he participated with SEAL Team Six in their May 2011 assault on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which the terrorist leader was killed. His testimony would help establish a chain of custody for the evidence from its recovery to its analysis by a computer expert.
Lind ruled later in the hearing that John Doe must testify in civilian clothing and “light disguise” in a closed session at an alternate, secure location to prevent disclosure of his identity or details of the mission. The disguise cannot obscure his demeanor, body movements and facial reactions.
Lind said the trial also would be closed during the entire testimony of three other unidentified “special” prosecution witnesses who will discuss classified information. It might be closed during part of the testimony of 24 other government witnesses to prevent release of classified information, she said.
The judge ordered a closed pretrial hearing May 7-8 to test alternatives to closing large portions of the trial. A sample witness will testify, using code words, redacted documents and unclassified summaries to avoid disclosing government secrets. Lind will then decide whether such a system would work at trial.
Earlier Wednesday, Lind denied a government motion seeking to lower the bar for convicting Manning of violating the federal Espionage Act. He is charged with eight counts of that offense. Lind ruled, contrary to the motion, that prosecutors must prove Manning had reason to believe that the information he leaked could hurt the United States or help a foreign nation.
Lind released written copies of the day’s first two rulings to reporters. It was the first time since she got the case in February 2012 that she has made her written orders publicly available. The lack of contemporaneous public access to rulings and motions is being challenged in the military appeals courts by the Center for Constitutional Rights, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and several left-leaning pundits and publications, with support from 30 news organizations, including The Associated Press.
In February, the military began releasing Lind’s older rulings amid numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Her written rulings on Wednesday were distributed by a military attorney who said Lind released them partly because neither the prosecution nor the defense objected.
The hearing ended Wednesday.
Manning pleaded guilty in February to lesser versions of some of the 22 charges he faces. Prosecutors have said they still intend to prove him guilty of the all the original charges.
His trial is scheduled to start June 3 at Fort Meade. It could last for 12 weeks.
The 25-year-old native of Crescent, Okla., is accused of sending hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, State Department diplomatic cables, other classified records and two battlefield video clips to WikiLeaks in 2009 and 2010 while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
In a statement he read aloud in court Feb. 28, Manning said he sent the material to the anti-secrecy website to expose the American military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life in Iraq and Afghanistan.