FORT MEADE, Md. — The U.S. military opened its pretrial hearing for accused leaker Army Pfc. Bradley Manning on Friday in a heavily secured courtroom where Manning, dressed in his Army camouflage fatigues, made his first public appearance.
The hearing, the rough equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceeding, is to determine whether Manning will be court-martialed on charges that he stole an enormous trove of government secrets and caused them to be made public on the Internet.
A U.S. military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began Friday that the presiding officer is likely to make his recommendation on whether to court-martial Manning within eight days after the hearing ends. The hearing is expected to last over the weekend and possibly well into next week.
Manning, 23, was at the defense table Friday along with his civilian lawyer, David Coombs, and two other Army lawyers.
The legal expert, who could not be identified under Army ground rules, said Manning is to be present for all proceedings, including sessions closed to the public for consideration of classified material.
Fort Meade, located between Washington and Baltimore, is, ironically, home to U.S. Cyber Command, the organization whose mission includes protecting computer networks like the one Manning allegedly breached by illegally downloading huge numbers of classified documents in Iraq.
He is suspected of giving the documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website that last year began publishing the materials.
Manning's lawyer asserts that the documents' release did little actual harm.
The case has spawned an international movement in support of Manning, who is seen by anti-war activists as a hero who helped expose American mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. To others he is a villain, even a traitor, who betrayed his oath of loyalty by deliberately spilling his government's secrets.
Manning's supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organizing a rally for Saturday.
The hearing at Fort Meade is intended to yield a recommendation to Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington, on whether Manning should be court-martialed. Linnington could choose other courses, including applying an administrative punishment or dismissing some or all of the 22 counts against Manning.
If his case goes to trial and he is convicted, Manning could face life in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Manning's alleged actions damaging and unfortunate.
"I think that in an age where so much information is flying through cyberspace, we all have to be aware of the fact that some information which is sensitive, which does affect the security of individuals and relationships, deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so," Clinton told reporters at the State Department.
The Manning case has led to a debate over the broader issue of whether the government's system for classifying and shielding information has grown so unwieldy that it is increasingly vulnerable to intrusions.
Absent from the Meade proceedings will be Julian Assange, who runs WikiLeaks from England. He is fighting in British courts to block a Swedish request that he be extradited to face trial over rape allegations.
A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, and WikiLeaks is straining under an American financial embargo that Assange says has starved it of revenue.
The materials Manning is accused of leaking include hundreds of thousands of sensitive items: Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a classified military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.
At the time, Manning, a native of Crescent, Okla., was a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, was detained in Iraq in May 2010 and moved to a Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Va., in July. Nine months later, the Army sent him to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., after a series of claims by Manning of unlawful pretrial punishment.
When it filed formal charges against Manning in March 2011, the Army accused him of using unauthorized software on government computers to extract classified information, illegally download it and transmit the data for public release by what the Army termed "the enemy."
The first large publication of the documents by WikiLeaks in July 2010, some 77,000 military records on the war in Afghanistan, made global headlines. But the material provided only limited revelations, including unreported incidents of Afghan civilian killings as well as covert operations against Taliban figures.
In October 2010, WikiLeaks published a batch of nearly 400,000 documents that dated from early 2004 to Jan. 1, 2010. They were written mostly by low-ranking officers in the field cataloging thousands of battles with insurgents and roadside bomb attacks, plus equipment failures and shootings by civilian contractors. The documents did not alter the basic outlines of how the war was fought.
A month later, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of State Department documents that revealed a hidden world of backstage international diplomacy. They divulged candid comments from world leaders and detailed occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.
Last month, 54 members of the European Parliament signed a letter to the U.S. government raising concerns about Manning's lengthy detention. They questioned whether his right to due process has been violated by keeping him in pretrial confinement for 18 months.
It took months for the Army to reach the conclusion that Manning was competent to stand trial. In the meantime Manning's civilian lawyer, David E. Coombs, has sought to build a case that appears to rest in part on an assertion that the government's own reviews of the leaks concluded that little damage was done.
Indeed, the Pentagon determined in August 2010 that the initial leaks had not compromised intelligence sources or practices, although it said the disclosures could still cause significant damage to U.S. security interests.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP