By Andrew Longstreth
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An offer of a partial plea by the U.S. Army private accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks appears to be a two-pronged defense strategy that seeks to win sympathy from the judge and to shift the focus of the trial to charges that are more difficult to prove, legal experts said.
The offer from the accused private, Bradley Manning, was made public late Wednesday by his attorney, who indicated in a blog post that his client was willing to plead guilty to less serious offenses than those charged by prosecutors while contesting the other accusations in court.
The so-called naked plea is a rarely used tactic employed in military court proceedings and would only have to be accepted by the judge overseeing the case. It does not require consent from prosecutors who have brought 22 charges against Manning in what has been described as the largest leak of classified government documents in history.
Manning is accused of passing the documents to WikiLeaks, the online whistleblowing site founded by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange. WikiLeaks has never confirmed that Manning was the source of any documents it released.
Among other charges, Manning is accused of unauthorized possession of information related to national defense and stealing records belonging to the United States.
In his blog post, Manning's lawyer, David Coombs, wrote that his client is "attempting to accept responsibility for offences that are encapsulated within, or are a subset of, the charged offenses." This process is known as pleading by exceptions and substitutions.
Coombs did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The plea tactic seems aimed at achieving two goals, legal experts said.
First, it is seen as an attempt by Manning to curry favor with the judge in a bid for a more lenient sentence. Under this theory, Manning hopes the judge will go easy on him for acknowledging actions he would not be able to refute at trial, said Victor Hansen, a former military lawyer and a professor at New England Law School.
"He can say ‘I manned up to what I did,'" said Hansen.
At the same time, Manning could be trying to pare down the prosecution's case to the most difficult charges to prove, including accusations that he intended to aid the enemy - in this case, al Qaeda.
Proving that Manning intended to aid the enemy could require prosecutors to establish that Manning wanted the leaked information to reach al Qaeda, and that is a high legal bar, said David Velloney, a military law expert who is a professor at the Regent University School of Law.
"He's looking to fight the case in the most tactically favorable way and in the light most favorable to him," said Velloney.
But there are dangers in Manning's strategy. Even if the judge accepts the deal, there is no guarantee that Manning will be credited for pleading guilty to certain offenses in this late stage of the case.
By pleading guilty to certain facts, Manning also gives up any right to contest them at trial, which could make it easier for the government to prove its most serious charges.
"That's the cost-benefit analysis you have to do," said Philip Cave, a military law expert in private practice.
WikiLeaks founder Assange faces extradition to Sweden from Britain for questioning in a sexual molestation case. He has taken 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.
(Reporting by Andrew Longstreth; additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jim Loney)
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