FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - The U.S. Army private accused of orchestrating a massive leak of classified documents to the WikiLeaks website said on Friday he may have been sarcastic in indicating he had suicidal thoughts when he first arrived at a U.S. detention centre.
Bradley Manning wrapped up his second day of testimony in a pre-trial hearing to determine whether he should face a court-martial on suspicion of leaking thousands of classified military reports, diplomatic cables and other documents.
A prosecutor asked why he had stated on arrival at Quantico, Virginia, in July 2010 that he was “always planning, never acting” about being suicidal.
“I did say it might have been sort of a sarcastic answer, given just on a whim,” Manning said. “I knew I was going to be placed on a suicide risk status. It didn’t really make a difference what answer I gave.”
Manning, who testified on Thursday that his early days in detention in May 2010 in Kuwait were spent in a cramped “cage” where he thought he would die, was placed on suicide watch on arrival at Quantico. He lived in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day with a guard checking on him every few minutes.
His lawyers have sought to have the case dropped, arguing his treatment since arriving at Quantico has been unfairly harsh.
Manning faces up to life in prison if convicted of charges he played a role in the leaking of secrets by WikiLeaks, which stunned governments around the world by publishing intelligence documents and diplomatic cables, mostly in 2010.
Prosecutors have alleged that Manning, without authorization while on intelligence duty, 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 Manning was the source of any documents it released.
Manning’s lawyers are working with the court on the language of a proposed plea involving less serious charges. A prison term of at least 16 years is under discussion, one of his attorneys said, but until a plea is formally entered and accepted, the length of any prison term is uncertain.
Manning’s testimony on Thursday marked his first public comments since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010. His cross-examination on Friday came on the fourth day of the hearing at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Prosecutors attempted to discredit him on Friday by asking why he did not complain more about his prison conditions to visitors or his army counsellors. They also questioned Manning’s concern with his public image, asking why he met with a public relations consultant through his lawyer.
Charges 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.
In pre-trial litigation, prosecutors have presented testimony legal experts say could be used to build a case that Manning had been in email contact with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ Australian-born founder.
Assange has spent nearly six months in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he sought refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual molestation case.
Assange and his supporters have said the Swedish case against him could be part of a secret plot to have him sent to the United States for trial and either executed or imprisoned at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. officials have denied those assertions but have acknowledged a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has been collecting evidence about WikiLeaks. U.S. officials have not ruled out criminal charges against Assange.
Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Bill Trott and Mohammad Zargham