FORT MEADE, Md. — In a half-empty courtroom here, with a crew of fervent supporters in attendance, Pfc. Bradley Manning and his lawyer have spent the last two weeks turning the tables on the government.
Private Manning faces a potential life sentence if convicted on charges that he gave WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy organization, hundreds of thousands of confidential military and diplomatic documents. But for now, he has been effectively putting on trial his former jailers at the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps base. His lawyer, David E. Coombs, has grilled one Quantico official after another, demanding to know why his client was kept in isolation and stripped of his clothing at night as part of suicide-prevention measures.
Mr. Coombs, a polite but relentless interrogator who stands a foot taller than his client, has laid bare deep disagreements inside the military: psychiatrists thought the special measures unnecessary, while jail commanders ignored their advice and kept the suicide restrictions in place. In a long day of testimony last week, Private Manning of the Army, vilified as a dangerous traitor by some members of Congress but lauded as a war-crimes whistle-blower on the political left, heartened his sympathizers with an eloquent and even humorous performance on the stand.
“He was engaged, chipper, optimistic,” said Bill Wagner, 74, a retired NASA solar physicist who is a courtroom regular, dressed in the black “Truth” T-shirt favored by Private Manning’s supporters.
Private Manning, who turns 25 on Dec. 17 and looks much younger, was quietly attentive during Friday’s court session, in a dress uniform, crew-cut blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses. If his face were not already familiar from television news, he might have been mistaken for a first-year law student assisting the defense team.
It seemed incongruous that he has essentially acknowledged responsibility for the largest leak of classified material in history. The material included a quarter-million State Department cables whose release may have chilled diplomats’ ability to do their work discreetly but also helped fuel the Arab Spring; video of American helicopter crews shooting people on the ground in Baghdad who they thought were enemy fighters but were actually Reuters journalists; field reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and confidential assessments of the detainees locked up at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
As the military pursues the case against Private Manning, the Justice Department continues to explore the possibility of charging WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, or other activists with the group, possibly as conspirators in Private Manning’s alleged offense. Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., are still assigned to that investigation, according to law enforcement officials, but it is not clear how active they have been lately in presenting evidence to a grand jury.
The current tone of the legal proceedings against Private Manning is most likely temporary. His lawyer is asking the judge overseeing the case to throw out the charges on the ground that his pretrial treatment was unlawful, but that outcome appears unlikely.
As a fallback, Mr. Coombs is hoping the court will at least give Private Manning extra credit against any ultimate sentence for the time he spent held under harsh conditions at Quantico and earlier in Kuwait, where he was kept in what he described as “an animal cage.” After the uproar about his treatment, including public criticism from the State Department’s top spokesman and the United Nations’ top torture expert, military officials moved Private Manning in April 2011 from Quantico to a new prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he has not faced the same restrictions on clothing, sleeping conditions and conversation with other inmates.
As if to underscore the gravity of his legal predicament, Private Manning offered last month to plead guilty to lesser charges that could send him to prison for 16 years. Prosecutors have not said whether they are interested in such a deal, which would mean they would have to give up seeking a life sentence for the most serious charges: aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act.
Friday’s court session was attended by a dozen Manning loyalists, including Thomas A. Drake, the former National Security Agency official who was accused of leaking documents and pleaded guilty to a minor charge last year. They heard the commander of the Quantico brig, or military jail, explain why she refused Private Manning’s request to be taken off “prevention of injury” status.
Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes, who was in charge of the brig for the last four months of Private Manning’s time there, said that the soldier declined her many requests to describe his emotional state in detail. Because of some odd behavior and two previous statements he had made that flagged him as a suicide risk, she said she was unwilling to change his status — despite the advice of military psychiatrists — until he opened up to her about how he was feeling.
Over the months she spent with him, speaking briefly with him each day, he grew less communicative and more monosyllabic, Ms. Barnes said.
“He did not clearly communicate to me, ‘I don’t want to kill myself,’ ” she said. “There was never an intent to punish Pfc. Manning.”
Ms. Barnes referred in passing to online attacks on her earlier this year by activists, one of whom called her a “sexual sadist.” She said she had no ill will against Private Manning “even though I was threatened and my family’s information was put out on the Internet.”
As Private Manning awaits a court-martial, now scheduled for March, Mr. Assange is holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he has lived since Ecuador granted him asylum in August. British officials have refused to grant him safe passage out of the country.
Mr. Assange faces no charges in connection with WikiLeaks but is wanted for questioning in Sweden in connection with allegations of sexual assault. He has expressed concern that Swedish authorities might extradite him to the United States.
From his embassy refuge, Mr. Assange has recently conducted a series of often-contentious television interviews with CNN, BBC and other news outlets, accusing the United States of torturing Private Manning. WikiLeaks supporters have theorized that the tough treatment of the soldier may have been designed to pressure him to testify against Mr. Assange.
No evidence has surfaced to support that theory. But if Private Manning’s offer to admit to reduced charges leads to serious plea negotiations, his cooperation in any future prosecution against WikiLeaks could conceivably be part of a deal.