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U.S. soldier in WikiLeaks case seeks to explore plea bargain

Army Private First Class Bradley Manning (C) is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland June 6, 2012. REUT
Army Private First Class Bradley Manning (C) is escorted in handcuffs as he leaves the courthouse in Fort Meade, Maryland June 6, 2012. REUT

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Army private facing court-martial for allegedly leaking secret documents to the WikiLeaks website has offered to plead guilty to less serious offenses than those with which he has been charged, his lawyer said.

In a blog post, David Coombs, attorney for accused WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, said late on Wednesday that Manning was not actually pleading guilty to charges filed against him by military prosecutors. The private faces life imprisonment if convicted of the charges.

Those include stealing records belonging to the United States and wrongfully causing them to be published on the Internet and aiding enemies of the United States, identified by prosecutors as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the militant network founded by the late Osama bin Laden.

Instead, Manning is "attempting to accept responsibility for offences that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses," Coombs wrote. He said it would be up to the military court hearing Manning's case to decide whether it would be "permissible" for Manning to take such action.

Coombs said the court had discretion to permit such a plea without the agreement of prosecutors. But even if the court decided a plea to lesser offenses were allowed, the government could still pursue the more serious charges against Manning, Coombs wrote.

The lawyer added that Manning had decided to be tried by a single military judge, rather than a judge and panel of military officers.

Nathan Fuller, spokesman for the Bradley Manning Support Network, an activist group, said it would be "very premature" to conclude that a plea bargain deal would ultimately be struck.

Fuller said prosecutors had not yet replied to Manning's offer to plead guilty to lesser charges, and that no ruling on Manning's offer would occur before the government submitted its reply.

Fuller said the court could rule on that and other issues during a round of preliminary hearings scheduled for late November. Prosecutors are expected at least to consider Manning's offer, although there is no indication if they might be willing to agree to a deal.

Prosecutors have alleged that Manning without authorization disclosed hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, military reports and video of a military helicopter attack in Iraq in which two Reuters journalists were killed.

WikiLeaks has never confirmed that Manning was the source of any documents it released.

In pre-trial litigation, prosecutors have presented testimony that legal experts say could be used to build a case that Manning had been in email contact with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' Australian-born founder.

Earlier this year, Assange, who faces extradition to Sweden from Britain for questioning in a sexual molestation case, took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

Assange and his supporters have said the Swedish case against him could be part of a secret plot to have him shipped for trial to the United States and either executed or imprisoned at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U.S. officials have denied those assertions. But they have acknowledged that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has been collecting evidence about WikiLeaks and some of its activists. Officials have not ruled out U.S. criminal charges against Assange.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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