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FORT MEADE, Md. – The young Army intelligence specialist accused of passing government secrets spent his 24th birthday in court Saturday as his lawyers argued his status as a gay soldier before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" played an important role in his actions.
Lawyers for Pfc. Bradley Manning began laying out a defense to show that his struggles as a gay soldier in an environment hostile to homosexuality contributed to mental and emotional problems that should have barred him from having access to sensitive material.
Manning is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive items to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, including Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.
The Obama administration says the released information has threatened valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America's relations with other governments. Manning's lawyers counter that much of the information that was classified by the Pentagon posed no risk.
The military is conducting a hearing in a small courtroom on an Army post outside Washington to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring Manning to trial, where he could face a term of life in prison as a traitor.
Prosecutors began presenting evidence to substantiate the charges against Manning.
Army criminal investigators described evidence they collected that links Manning to the WikiLeaks website's collection of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets.
But among the first issues to arise Saturday was whether Manning's sexual orientation is relevant to the case against him.
The basis for the charges Manning faces are transcripts of online chats with a confidant-turned-government-informant in which Manning allegedly confesses his ties to WikiLeaks and also reveals he is gay.
Maj. Matthew Kemkes, a defense lawyer, asked Special Agent Toni Graham, an Army criminal investigator, whether she had talked to people who believed Manning was gay or found evidence among his belongings relating to gender-identity disorder. The condition often is described as a mental diagnosis in which people believe they were born the wrong sex.
Graham said such questions were irrelevant to the investigation. "We already knew before we arrived that Pfc. Manning was a homosexual," Graham said.
Prosecutors objected several times to the questions. Kemkes responded that if the government can argue that Manning intended to leak secrets, "what is going on in my client's mind is very important."
During its cross examination of Graham, Manning's defense team also sought to convince the court that not all of the material he is accused of leaking is classified.
Graham, who collected evidence from Manning's living quarters and workplace, testified that among the items seized was a DVD marked "secret" that contained a military video showing the 2007 incident in which Apache attack helicopters gunned down unarmed men in Iraq.
The video was taken from the cockpit of one the helicopters. WikiLeaks posted the video in April 2010, sparking questions about the military's rules of engagement and whether more needed to be done to prevent civilian casualties. The gunners can be heard laughing and referring to the men as "dead bastards."
Kemkes, one of Manning's lawyers, asked Graham whether she knew the video was unclassified. She said she didn't. "In fact, it was an unclassified video," Kemkes said.
At the time the video was posted by WikiLeaks, the Pentagon called it a breach of national security and it was believed to be secret.
Although WikiLeaks had been posting sensitive information to the Web since 2006, release of the Apache video drew worldwide attention to the organization as it prepared to publish secret documents on the war in Afghanistan.
Manning's appearances Friday and Saturday in the Fort Meade courtroom mark the first time he has been seen in public after 19 months in detention. The Oklahoma native comes to court in Army camouflage fatigues and wearing dark-rimmed glasses. Slight and serious, he takes notes during the proceedings.
An Army appeals court on Friday rejected a defense effort to have the presiding officer, Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, because of alleged bias. Separately, lawyers for WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange are asking the military's highest appeals court to guarantee two seats in the Fort Meade courtroom.
Manning's hearing is open to the public, with limited seating. Inside the courtroom, no civilian recording equipment is allowed. Instead of a judge, a presiding officer delivers a recommendation as to whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring a suspect to trial. A military commander then makes the final decision.
The case has spawned an international support network of people who believe the U.S. government has gone too far in seeking to punish Manning.
More than 100 people gathered outside Fort Meade for a march in support of Manning, some holding signs declaring "Americans have the right to know. Free Bradley Manning" and "Blowing the whistle on war crimes is not a crime."
Todd Anderson, 64, said he drove from New York City to take part. "I think this man showed a great deal of courage, the kind of thing I wouldn't have the courage to do, and I really consider him to be a hero," Anderson said.
Juline Jordan, 46, said she flew in from Detroit just for the day. "I support what he did because he exposed some horrific war crimes and horrific things done at the hands of the United States government and the Department of Defense, and he's a hero for that," Jordan said.
In London, several dozen protesters from gay organizations, the Occupy London protest camp and other groups rallied outside the U.S. Embassy Saturday calling for Manning's release and offering birthday wishes.