Bradley Manning. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP
The 25-year-old US Army private cuts a modest figure in court, outflanked by his lawyers who tower above him on either of the defence table at which he has sat through many hours of legal argument. Wearing a neat dark blue dress uniform, he has come across as a thoughtful individual with strong passions that include world affairs, philosophy, reading and human rights. It is not clear whether he will be called by the defence during the course of the trial, especially after the judge ruled that discussion of his motives for transmitting information to WikiLeaks must be reserved for the sentencing stage of the proceedings, should he be found guilty. He faces 21 counts relating to the WikiLeaks dump of US state secrets, including US embassy cables and warlogs from Iraq and Afghanistan, that could see him confined to military custody for the rest of his life with no chance of parole.
The presiding authority, Colonel Denise Lind, will be sitting in sole judgment over Manning, after the soldier opted not to be tried by the military equivalent of a jury. Currently chief judge within the US Army's 1st Judicial Circuit, Lind has the daunting task of keeping on top of a case that has generated more paperwork than any trial in American military justice. She also has the onerous job of deciding whether to find Manning guilty of "aiding the enemy" – a charge that could have huge ramifications for the US media and expose the soldier to a maximum sentence of life in military custody. So far she has directed the court martial with a firm – some would say rigid – hand, refusing to allow Manning to present evidence about his motives for leaking during the trial phase and granting a reduction of just 112 days from any eventual sentence as compensation for the excessively harsh treatment he suffered while in pre-trial detention.
Manning's lead defence lawyer, David Coombs, has put his stamp on this historic court martial even before the trial proper begins. In the course of pre-trial hearings, he accused his client's military captors in Quantico marine base, where Manning was held for 10 months in 2010 and 2011, of subjecting him to unacceptably harsh restrictions; he has forced the military to allow him to publish, albeit heavily redacted, defence motions on his own personal blog; and he has been a persistent critic of the prosecution for failing to disclose key evidence to the defence. Coombs is a civilian lawyer, but as a lieutenant colonel in the reserves he has an intimate understanding of military law. His defence approach has at times been controversial, particularly with regard to Manning's decision to make a "naked plea" – admitting to lesser charges carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail without using that as a bargaining chip with the prosecutors to gain a deal.
The prosecution is being led by the deceptively youthful Ashden Fein, whose boyish looks belie the toughness of his legal approach. Over the course of 17 months of pre-trial hearings, Fein's prosecution team has agreed to drop just one count against Manning – removing eight years from his possible sentence but leaving more than 150 years in custody still in play. Fein's prosecution style has also come under criticism from freedom of information campaigners – the trial has so far been shrouded in secrecy, with few prosecution motions released to the public and those that have been released heavily redacted. Fein has requested, with the judge's approval, that 24 prosecution witnesses give evidence partially behind closed doors, away from the public and the media.
The most intriguing of the more than 100 witnesses that have been listed for the trial will never be seen in public, even if he is called at all. The witness, referred to in court only as "John Doe", was present at the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in which Osama bin Laden was killed. Though the prosecution has not openly said as much, he is likely to be one of the 22 Navy Seals who carried out the raid. John Doe is one of four prosecution witnesses who will be allowed to give evidence entirely in secret, dressed in a "light disguise" and at a location that will remain undisclosed. The prosecution has indicated it wants to call him in order to show that Bin Laden personally asked to see some of the WikiLeaks disclosures including the Afghan war logs – a finding that the US government thinks will help its case that Bradley Manning "aided the enemy". John Doe is said to have retrieved three items of digital material from Bin Laden's compound that contained WikiLeaks files. However, it is possible that John Doe will not be called to the stand at all: at the final pre-trial hearing earlier this month, Manning effectively accepted that the digital items with WikiLeaks on them had been found in the al-Qaida leader's hideout, thus easing the burden on the prosecution to prove this point.