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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Army Private Bradley Manning is in a military court today. It's his first appearance since his arrest 18 months ago. While serving in Iraq, Manning allegedly downloaded thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables and shared them with the website WikiLeaks. He faces 22 criminal charges that could keep him behind bars for life. The court session began this morning at Fort Meade in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. NPR's Carrie Johnson is following the case.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: When the leak was discovered in 2010, public outcry was swift, and in some cases extreme, even before authorities pointed to a suspect. Here's former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, now a Fox news host.

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MIKE HUCKABEE: Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason. And I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.

JOHNSON: Since then, tempers have cooled, at least a bit. Military prosecutors say they won't seek the most serious penalty, death, for Private First Class Bradley Manning. But starting today, they'll present evidence in a military court that Manning is responsible for one of the biggest leaks in decades. They'll argue Manning downloaded national secrets onto what looked like a Lady Gaga CD, and then he passed those documents on to WikiLeaks.

It's the start of what's known as an Article 32 proceeding, the run up to a court martial, a procedure similar to a grand jury in an ordinary court, with one important exception, says Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law.

EUGENE FIDELL: The unusual thing about an Article 32 investigation is that both sides get heard.

JOHNSON: So over the course of the next several days, military prosecutors will present testimony from witnesses, and defense lawyers for Bradley Manning will have a chance to cross-examine them.

FIDELL: We know that the defense would like to make this process as painful for the government as possible, perhaps as a way of getting the government to take a different position with respect to Manning and the charges.

JOHNSON: Manning's civilian lawyer, David Coombs, has tried without success to get high-level government officials to testify. He wants them to say that the secrets Manning allegedly disclosed didn't cause any damage to national security.

He also wants to shine a spotlight on what he calls rough treatment Manning received when he was locked up in a brig in Quantico, Virginia, treatment that Kevin Zeese of the Bradley Manning Support Network describes as punitive and cruel.

KEVIN ZEESE: He was going through some periods of forced nudity, denial of all access to books, and had guards outside his door all the time, forced to stand nude to get his clothes back in the morning, kept in uncomfortable conditions at night.

JOHNSON: Those conditions prompted an international outcry and an ongoing human rights investigation. Zeese will rally with other supporters near the site of the court hearing at Fort Meade, Maryland to bring attention to a prosecution he says is wrong.

ZEESE: The documents that were involved in this case were low-level secrets. Most of them should not have even been secrets.

JOHNSON: In fact, that dispute over levels of secrecy is likely to pervade the military hearing. Fidell, who teaches military law, says the presumption in an Article 32 hearing leans towards openness.

FIDELL: So one of the challenging tasks before the investigating officer is going to be to decide how to use that scalpel, how to keep as small as possible the parts of the hearing that concern classified information.

JOHNSON: There's another thing that will hover over the hearing, Fidell says: the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

FIDELL: He's sort of the ghost at the banquet. He's not going to be there, obviously. He's still stuck in England. But his presence is everywhere in this.

JOHNSON: The investigating officer will make a recommendation about the next phase in Manning's case sometime next year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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