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Judge accepts Bradley Manning's guilty pleas on 10 lesser charges; trial on 12 others set for June

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning steps out of a security vehicle as he is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., on Nov. 29, 2012, for a pretrial hearing.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning steps out of a security vehicle as he is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., on Nov. 29, 2012, for a pretrial hearing.Patrick Semansky / AP file

FORT MEADE, Md. – A military judge on Thursday accepted guilty pleas by  Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to 10 lesser charges against him, leaving the ex-intelligence analyst to face 12 other counts for allegedly leaking hundreds of thousands of government documents to the WikiLeaks website. 

The acceptance of the "naked guilty pleas" -- meaning there is no agreement between the government and the defense that would limit the sentence – at a pre-trial hearing means that Manning faces up to 20 years in prison, even if he is ultimately acquitted of the most-serious charges against him. 

Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over the case, also accepted Manning’s “not guilty” pleas to the remaining charges, including "aiding the enemy." His court martial on those charges, which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, is scheduled to begin on June 3. 

During the day-long pre-trial hearing, Manning acknowledged that his actions were a discredit to the service and that he knew WikiLeaks was not authorized to have the information he provided. 

At one point when Lind asked him whether he knew what he was doing was wrong, he answered simply, "Yes, your honor."

More than an hour of Thursday's hearing was consumed by Manning's composed reading of a 35-page prepared statement that offered his first public explanation of his motives for leaking the government documents to WikiLeaks. He said he did so 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 Iraq and Afghanistan. But he said he became increasingly disillusioned after being sent to Iraq by actions that "didn't seem characteristic" of the U.S., the leader of free world.

Manning said under oath that the first documents he sent to WikiLeaks in early 2012 were the combined information data network exchanges for Iraq and Afghanistan, which he described as the daily journals of the "on-the-ground reality" of the conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan. 

He said he sent the information while on leave and staying at his aunt's house in Potomac, Md., using a public computer at a Barnes & Noble store in Rockville or North Bethesda. He said included a brief note calling the information the most significant documents of our time, and closing with, "Have a good day." 

He said he tried to send the information to the Washington Post and the New York Times before turning to WikiLeaks.  He said he later sent information to WikiLeaks eight other times from his personal laptop at Contingency Base Hammer in Iraq. 

Manning is facing 22 criminal charges that include "aiding the enemy" and could face a life sentence if convicted of the most serious charges. 

Manning said he decided to release the first batch information because he was depressed and frustrated, and felt "a sense of relief" when he returned to Iraq. He said he finally had a "clear conscience" because someone else knew what was happening. 

His most detailed explanation involved the release of aerial weapons team video showing airstrikes that killed some Iraqi civilians and several Reuters journalists.

“It was troubling to me" that the U.S. military in Iraq wouldn't release the video, he said. Also disturbing was the "seemingly delightful blood lust" exhibited when members of the air crew referred to the civilians as "dead bastards" and congratulated one another on their ability to kill large numbers of people. He said he was encouraged by the public response, that others were "as troubled" as he was.

In addition to the charge of aiding the enemy, Manning pleaded not guilty to counts alleging theft of U.S documents or videos -- including allegations that he stole the list of all of the emails and phone numbers of U.S. military and personnel in Iraq at the time -- unauthorized access of that information and downloading unauthorized software onto government computers.

The charges to which he pleaded guilty included intentionally causing intelligence information to be published on the Internet, improper handling of classified information and counts of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

Specifically, Manning acknowledged that he had unauthorized possession of information, that he willfully communicated it, and that he communicated it to an unauthorized person. However, he only acknowledged that for nine specific files or pieces of information, including: 

  • Combat engagement video of a helicopter gunship;
  • Two Army intelligence agency memos;
  • Certain records of the combined information data network exchange Iraq (which tracks all significant acts and patrol reports);
  • Combined information data network exchange Afghanistan records;
  • Some SOUTHCOM files dealing with Guantanamo Bay;
  • An investigation into an incident in a village in Farah, Afghanistan; 
  • Some Department of State cables.

Related story: WikiLeaks case: Bradley Manning seeks first public statement on motive

At his court martial, Manning’s defense is expected to argue that he considered himself a "whistleblower" and released the documents with "no malicious intent" or the intent to do "any harm to anyone." The government contends the release of the documents put some lives at risks, including the names of Afghans who were working with the U.S. military and intelligence.

Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News’ Chief Pentagon Correspondent and Courtney Kube is NBC News’ National Security Producer.