Private Bradley Manning, convicted of handing state secrets to WikiLeaks, on Wednesday told the sentencing part of his court martial that he was sorry for his actions and for hurting the United States.
"I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I 'm sorry that they hurt the United States," he said. "I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people. The last few years have been a learning experience.”
Manning says he understood what he was doing and the decisions he made. However, he says he did not believe at the time that leaking the information would cause harm.
The 25-year-old former Army intelligence analyst faces up to 90 years in prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy site. He was convicted in July of espionage, releasing classified information, disobeying orders and leaking intelligence knowing that it would be accessible to the enemy.
Manning took the stand and gave the statement as part of the defense team's efforts to persuade the judge to issue a lighter sentence.
"I should have worked more aggressively inside the system...Unfortunately, I can't go back and change things," Manning, wearing his dress uniform and glasses, his hair in a crew cut, said from the witness stand.
He did not appear to be reading from notes and looked at the judge and around the room as he spoke for less than four minutes.
"I understand I must pay a price for my decisions," Manning continued in his first lengthy public statement since February.
The controversial whistle blower said he hopes to one day be a positive influence for his family, attend college and “be a better person.”
Manning has been silent since he was found guilty of espionage for funneling the documents to the anti-secretary website WikiLeaks. The soldier has not spoken in court since his trial began on June 3.
Manning was acquitted on charges of aiding the enemy on July 30, but was convicted on most other charges. Aiding the enemy carried a potential life sentence and was the most serious charge against Manning. His acquittal on that charge may be a sign that the judge does not intend to seek the harshest punishment possible against Manning.
The judge ruled last week that several of the charges facing Manning were duplicates, decreasing his maximum sentence from 136 years down to 90.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange released a statement decrying Manning's treatment and prosecution and explaining the apology.
"Mr. Manning's options have run out," the statement said. ". The only currency this military court will take is Bradley Manning's humiliation. In light of this, Mr. Manning's forced decision to apologise to the US government in the hope of shaving a decade or more off his sentence must be regarded with compassion and understanding.
"Mr. Manning's apology is a statement extorted from him under the overbearing weight of the United States military justice system. It took three years and millions of dollars to extract two minutes of tactical remorse from this brave soldier."
Taking the stand after Manning was his 36-year-old sister, Casey Major, whose emotional testimony painted a picture of the soldier’s troubled upbringing that led him to ultimately become one of the world’s most infamous leakers.
Major described how she would wake up in the middle of the night to feed her infant brother while their parents were passed out from drinking. One night Major had to drive their depressed mother to the emergency room after she took an entire bottle of valium, as Manning sat in the back seat with her to make keep her awake and alive. Every day for the next year one of the two had to be with their mother because she threatened to kill herself if ever left alone.
Earlier on Wednesday, a military psychiatrist testified that Manning showed signs of behavioral disorders that got worse when he felt stress, and during deployment in Iraq he was considering whether to live as a woman.
The psychiatrist, Army Cmdr. David Moulton, testified during the defense portion of the sentencing hearing for Manning.
Moulton testified that Manning had a troubled childhood, with two alcoholic parents, and grew up neglected. In basic training, Manning was seen for “tantrum fits of rage,” the commander said.
That behavior grew worse with stress, and culminated with an incident in Iraq in April 2010, when Manning was found curled in a ball, clutching a knife, and then lashed out, striking a fellow soldier, he said.
Manning showed signs of narcissism, borderline personality disorder and obsessive compulsivity, the commander said.
He said that Manning’s biggest stressor was gender confusion. Manning was considering whether he wanted to become a woman, but he was in an environment where he couldn’t talk openly about that, Moulton said.
An earlier defense witness, psychologist Capt. Michael Worsley, said that Manning was in a “hyper-masculine environment” and had little support after he opened up about gender identity issues.
“Really there was just me,” Worsley said, adding that Manning was even “taking a chance with that” because being openly gay in the military was violation of military code at the time.
During cross-examination, military prosecutors tried to show that Manning isolated himself and snubbed overtures from his fellow soldiers, referring to online chats in which Manning called other soldiers “ignorant red necks.”
A military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, will determine the sentence. Wednesday is expected to be the final day of the defense portion of the sentencing hearing.
Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, has said he was disillusioned by an American foreign policy bent on “killing and capturing people” when he released the documents, including battlefield reports, to WikiLeaks in 2010.
Manning faced a general court-martial, which entitles him to an automatic appeal to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. That could take place within about six months of his sentencing.
The statement he made Wednesday was not Manning’s first in court. At a hearing in February, he read 35 pages of remarks that offered his public explanation for the leaks. He said he did it to “spark domestic debate” on foreign policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning painted himself as a young man with an "insatiable thirst for geopolitical information" and a desire for the world to know the truth about what was happening in the wars. He said he became increasingly disillusioned after being sent to Iraq by actions that “didn’t seem characteristic” of the United States.
The last person to take the stand before the defense rested was Manning’s aunt, Debra Van Alstyne, who said that his troubled upbringing “got too much for him” and said she hopes her nephew can one day can “go out and have a real life again.”
Reuters contributed to this story