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Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press
Protestors supporting Pfc. Bradley Manning gather outside Ft. Meade, Md., Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, where military prosecutors are presenting their case against him as the source for the WikiLeaks website's collection of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets. Manning, 24-year-old today, is blamed for the largest leak of classified material in American history. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring Manning to trial.

FORT MEADE, Md. — The young Army intelligence specialist accused of passing government secrets spent his 24th birthday in court Saturday listening to lawyers and witnesses discuss whether his sexual orientation plays any role in the case against him.

Prosecutors began presenting their case that Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was the source of the WikiLeaks website's collection of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets. The government's first two witnesses were Army criminal investigators.

Manning's defense team asked both witnesses whether they found evidence of homosexuality or references to gender-identity disorder among Manning's belongings. One investigator testified she knew Manning was gay before she arrived in Baghdad to collect evidence. Manning had been stationed in the Iraqi capital.

Manning allegedly acknowledged he was gay in the online chat logs, called authentic by the military, at the heart of the case.

The defense wants to show that his struggles as a gay soldier in the era of "don't ask-don't' tell" contributed to mental and emotional problems that should have barred him from having access to sensitive material.

The military is conducting a hearing to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring Manning to trial. Manning's lawyers tried to oust Lt. Col. Paul Almanza as the presiding officer because of alleged bias, but an Army appeals court rejected their request late Friday.

Separately, lawyers for WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange are asking the military's highest appeals court to guarantee them two seats in the courtroom at Fort Meade.

Manning is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive items including 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.

The Obama administration says the released information has threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America's relations with other governments.

Friday was Manning's first appearance in public after 19 months in detention. He appeared slight but serious in his Army camouflage fatigues and dark-rimmed glasses, taking notes during the proceedings and answering straightforwardly when called upon by Almanza.

Manning, a native of Crescent, Okla., is relying on a defense that will argue much of the classified information posed no risk.

In addition to claims of partiality, his lawyer, David Coombs, argued that Almanza wrongly denied the defense's request to call as witnesses the officials who marked as secret the material WikiLeaks later published. Instead, the officer accepted unsworn statements from those people, Coombs said.

Friday's tangling, however, centered primarily on Almanza's Justice Department job. "I don't believe I'm biased," Almanza said, explaining that his government work concerns child exploitation and obscenity. He said he hasn't talked about WikiLeaks or Manning with anyone in the department or FBI.

The Justice Department has a separate criminal investigation into Assange. A U.S. grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, even as he is in Britain fighting a Swedish request that he be extradited because of rape allegations.

Manning's hearing at this Army post outside Washington is open to the public, with limited seating. WikiLeaks' lawyers on Saturday asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Services to set aside two seats in the Fort Meade courtroom, one for the attorney representing the Wikileaks organization and the other for Assange's Australian attorney.

Inside the courtroom, no civilian recording equipment is allowed. Instead of a judge, a presiding officer delivers a recommendation as to whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial. A military commander then makes the final decision.

The case has spawned an international support network of people who believe the U.S. government has gone too far in seeking to punish Manning.

In London, several dozen protesters from gay organizations, the Occupy London protest camp and other groups rallied outside the U.S. Embassy Saturday calling for Manning's release. Some held placards declaring "Free Bradley Manning" and "Happy Birthday Bradley."

More than 100 people gathered outside Fort Meade for a march in support of Manning.

Todd Anderson, 64, said drove from New York City to take part.

"I think this man showed a great deal of courage, the kind of thing I wouldn't have the courage to do, and I really consider him to be a hero," Anderson said.

Juline Jordan, 46, said she flew in from Detroit just for the day.

"I support what he did because he exposed some horrific war crimes and horrific things done at the hands of the United States government and the Department of Defense, and he's a hero for that," Jordan said.

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, Mark Sherman in Washington and Brian Witte at Fort Meade contributed to this report.