FORT MEADE, Md. — The defense attorney for suspected WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning opened a pre-trial hearing on Friday morning with a bang — by calling for the investigating officer presiding over the hearing to recuse himself, immediately forcing the proceeding into recess while the government prepares a response and the officer reviews the details of the motion.
Defense attorney David E. Coombs called on Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, a reserve military judge who also works for the Justice Department, to recuse himself on several grounds including bias and conflict of interest.
Almanza was appointed the investigating officer in August 2010, but has worked as a career prosecutor with the DoJ since 2002 until Dec. 12 this year, when he went on reservist military leave to devote himself to the Manning case.
Coombs proceeded to put Almanza on trial after the first recess, asking why the Army picked someone who works for the Justice Department to preside over the hearing and pointing out that Alamanza is still using his DOJ e-mail account, even though he’s now on reservist leave.
“That simple fact alone … would cause a reasonable person to say ‘I question your impartiality,’” Coombs said.
The young former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning sat quietly next to his civilian attorney and two military attorneys, wearing Army fatigues and dark-rimmed glasses – sporting a crew cut with a bit of a flip in front. In his first appearance in public since being arrested in May 2010, Manning quietly answered a few questions from Almanza affirming he was happy with his defense team.
That left Coombs to take center stage in the small courtroom, where approximately 50 people — an assortment of the general public, service members and media — watched from pew-like seating.
Coombs argued that Almanza’s position with the Justice Department is a conflict of interest, given that the Justice Department has an open criminal investigation into wrongdoing conducted by WikiLeaks and has not ruled out the possibility that it could also jump in on the military case against Manning.
After seeming taken aback by Coombs’ tactic before the recess, Almanza returned to defend his impartiality, saying that he hadn’t talked to anyone inside the Justice Department about the case and that he is not a prosecutor but works in the department’s child exploitation and obscenity division on policy and legislation issues.
Coombs raised concerns that there could be pressure on Manning to plead guilty in the military case against him in exchange for providing information that could assist a criminal case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or others related to the organization.
Almanza was put on the defensive as Coombs also took issue with Almanza’s handling of witness requests from the defense and prosecution. Almanza has rejected 36 of 48 witnesses that the defense is seeking to testify at the hearing. Almanza had initially rejected 38 witnesses, but Coombs revealed in his motion statements on Friday that the court had decided that an additional two defense witnesses may be allowed. Coombs did not indicate which witnesses those might be.
Coombs argued that the whole reason the hearing is taking place a year and a half after Manning’s arrest was due to the government trying to decide how damaging the leaks of diplomatic cables and action reports from Iraq and Afghanistan were. He says the case against Manning rises and falls on how damaging the leaks were, but he’s not being allowed to call witnesses to undermine those assessments.
Turning away from Almanza to the audience, Coombs raised his arms, asking “Is this the best we can do?
Almanza then asked “Mr. Coombs, who are you addressing?”
Coombs replied “I’m addressing the public,” saying the public begs that we have a “thorough and impartial hearing.”
Coombs noted that in filing his witness list, he provided extensive grounds for requesting each witness, yet Almanza repeatedly rejected his witnesses. The government, however, just provided a list of names without providing grounds for why it was requesting the witnesses, and yet all of the government’s witness requests were granted.
Coombs said that if Almanza did not recuse himself, he had two lawyers standing by to file a “writ of stay” with the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the proceedings. In that case, Almanza could either suspend the hearing, pending the Appeals court ruling on his recusal, or opt to continue the hearing in hopes the Appeals court will not remove him from the case.
Almanza also warned both the government and defense teams that he had received an “extraordinary relief” request from a third party requesting access to the proceedings for his client. While that wasn’t explained, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, said today it filed a motion to ensure Assange has “guaranteed access” to the proceedings.
Assange is being investigated, but has not been charged, in connection with his publication of U.S. government classified material.
Update 1:30 p.m. EST
Almanza returned from the recess to announce his decision that he would not be recusing himself from the case.
“I do not believe a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances would be led to the conclusion that my impartiality would be reasonably questioned,” he told the courtroom. “I thus deny the defense request that I recuse myself.”
Almanza said that the hearing would proceed pending a decision on the writ to stay, but called a brief recess so that Coombs could consult with counsel to get the writ filed.