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WikiLeaks Court Martial Plea Deferred by Private Manning

The court martial of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning came to a halt as the soldier delayed entering a plea to charges he leaked classified information published on the WikiLeaks website.

Manning, 24, deferred a plea and a decision on whether to be tried by a military judge or jury in a hearing at the U.S. Army’s Fort Meade in Maryland, according to Colonel Michelle Roberts, an Army spokeswoman. Today’s session follows a December hearing and a subsequent finding that the U.S. government had enough evidence to proceed to a court martial.

The court today set a tentative date of March 15 to March 16 for the next session in the case, Roberts said.

Defense attorneys may recommend that a client defer a plea for a number of reasons, including gathering more information about the judge’s sentencing patterns or negotiating an agreement with the prosecution, said Eugene Fidell, president emeritus of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“I can’t help but think there is some kind of negotiation with the government,” Fidell, who teaches at Yale Law School, said in a telephone interview. “This has really been quite slow-moving.”

The defense of Manning by attorney David Coombs has included requests for government assessments of the damage the leaks allegedly did to national security and for depositions of dozens of witnesses, partly to establish whether the material was classified.

The 2010 WikiLeaks episode, in which hundreds of thousands of classified records and State Department cables were made public, spurred a drive to tighten government security.

Manning, who was stationed in Iraq at the time of the leaks, is charged with violations including aiding the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence.

“The case is a drama that embodies either great heroism or great villainy, depending on who you talk to,” Steven Aftergood, director of a government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said in an interview. “Up to this point, we’ve been in a preliminary phase, and the arraignment begins the process in earnest.”

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