A military judge cleared the way on Wednesday for a member of the team that raided Osama bin Laden's compound to testify at the trial of an Army private charged in a massive leak of US secrets to the Wikileaks website.
Col Denise Lind ruled for the prosecution during a
court-martial pretrial hearing for Pfc Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, near Baltimore.
Prosecutors say the witness, presumably a Navy SEAL, collected digital evidence showing that the al-Qaida leader requested and received from an associate some of the documents Manning has acknowledged sending to WikiLeaks.
Defense attorneys had argued that proof of receipt wasn't relevant to whether Manning aided the enemy, the most serious charge he faces, punishable by life imprisonment.
The judge disagreed.
"The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the intelligence is given to and received by the enemy," Lind said.
The ruling means prosecutors can call the witness during the "merits," or main, phase of the trial. They otherwise could have used his testimony only for sentencing purposes.
The witness has been publicly identified only as "John Doe" and as a Defence Department "operator," a designation given to SEALs. Prosecutors say he participated with SEAL Team Six in their May 2011 assault on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which the terrorist leader was killed. His testimony would help establish a chain of custody for the evidence from its recovery to its analysis by a computer expert.
Judge Lind is weighing options for protecting the witness' identity. They could include moving the trial to a secure location to hear his testimony, or having him wear a disguise.
Lind also must decide what limits to place on any defense cross-examination of John Doe, as well as three other unidentified "special witnesses," to protect national security.
Earlier on Wednesday, Lind denied a government motion seeking to lower the bar for convicting Manning of violating the federal Espionage Act. He is charged with eight counts of that offense. Lind ruled, contrary to the motion, that prosecutors must prove Manning had reason to believe that the information he leaked could hurt the United States or help a foreign nation.
Lind later released a written copy of the ruling to reporters. It was the first time since she got the case in February 2012 that she has made a written ruling publicly available. The lack of contemporaneous public access to rulings and motions is being challenged in the military appeals courts by the Center for Constitutional Rights, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and several left-leaning pundits and publications, with support from 30 news organizations, including The Associated Press.
In February, the military began releasing Lind's older rulings following numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. Copies of the order released Tuesday were distributed by a military attorney who said Lind released it partly because neither the prosecution nor the defense objected.
The hearing was expected to end on Wednesday.
Manning pleaded guilty in February to lesser versions of some of the 22 charges he faces. Prosecutors have said they still intend to prove him guilty of the all the original charges.
His trial is scheduled to start June 3 at Fort Meade. It could last for 12 weeks.
The 25-year-old native of Crescent, Oklahoma, is accused of sending hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, State Department diplomatic cables, other classified records and two battlefield video clips to WikiLeaks in 2009 and 2010 while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
In a statement he read aloud in court February 28, Manning said he sent the material to the anti-secrecy website to expose the American military's "bloodlust" and disregard for human life in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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