Bradley Manning's court martial finally begins on Monday, three years after he was first arrested in Iraq on suspicion of leaking classified information to the online site WikiLeaks. But there is a great deal more on trial than merely the alleged crime of this young soldier.
The military justice system has been splashed across media headlines in recent years. Army Sgt. Robert Bales will likely plead guilty to shooting 16 unarmed Afghans last March. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan was recently deemed mentally fit to stand trial for a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in 2009.
A defense-wide review of how the military should handle combat crimes and allegations of military sexual assault leads experts to question whether the Manning court martial will result in an examination of how military trials are conducted.
"This may be a tipping point," says Eugene Fidell, a military expert who teaches law at Yale University. "This could prove the occasion for a thorough review of military justice."
Manning allegedly leaked thousands of pages of classified documents while he was serving as an intelligence analyst at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, outside Baghdad. Many of the documents were posted on the WikiLeaks web site, including classified diplomatic cables and military reports about progress in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the paradoxes in the Manning case lies in a separate and simultaneous suit. A group of activists and journalists, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is suing in the U.S. District Court for greater access to the Manning court martial. Many elements of the trial have been kept secret under the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, including documents, briefs and information about closed-door witnesses.
"It's ironic that the Manning case, of all cases, should raise these questions about access to information," says Fidell.
The question to watch for this week remains: Is this going to be a case about whether Manning leaked information, or is it going to be about the public confidence in the administration of military justice?
Don't expect to find the answers any time soon. Manning will likely spend many, many years in court after this session ends on Friday. Courts martial begin with a findings phase in which the judge, in this case, will determine Manning's guilt or innocence for the 22 charges against him – 10 of which he has already pleaded guilty.
They then proceed to the sentencing phase where the judge will issue punishment. For Manning this could be life in prison.
It is then passed to a post-trial phase, in which the convening authority reviews the case. In this instance, that's the commander of the military district of D.C.
But Manning's attorneys have many options from there, including the Army Court of Appeals, the civilian Court of Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and possibly even the Supreme Court.
He could remain in and out of court for years, experts say.
What to look for:
Identities of witnesses: The government has tried to prove that Manning knowingly provided information to terrorist organizations, including Osama bin Laden's top circles. It is rumored that a participant in the SEAL Team Six raid who killed bin Laden will testify, though his participation may be kept behind closed doors.
The defense posture: Manning's lead attorney, civilian David Coombs, has not supported media requests for greater access to the information in the case. Look to see if that changes this week.
The government's case: This week, government lawyers will decide if they want to pursue charges against Manning to which he has not already pleaded guilty, including espionage and aiding the enemy.
An ulterior motive: "Lurking in the background is Julian Assange," Fidell says.
The founder of Wikileaks has been one of the vocal advocates for exposing classified materials on the internet and has largely eluded Western governments' efforts to prosecute him. It remains unclear whether Assange petitioned Manning for the information he allegedly leaked, as investigators have claimed, or if the two ever communicated directly at all.