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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The trial of Army Private Bradley Manning begins today at a military base in Maryland. Manning is accused of one of the biggest leaks of classified information in history. Prosecutors say he downloaded thousands of diplomatic cables and war field reports and sent them to the website WikiLeaks. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the case highlights the U.S. government's aggressive campaign to keep secrets.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In the three years since his arrest, the slight Army private with close-cropped blond hair and thick military glasses has become less of a character than a cause.

ELIZABETH GOITEIN: Bradley Manning is a very polarizing figure. People either think that he is a hero, or they think he's a traitor. I actually think that he is somewhere in between.

JOHNSON: Elizabeth Goitein co-directs the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. She'll be following the trial for what it says about the government's system for handling secret material.

GOITEIN: I think this case really does illustrate one of the harms of over-classification, which is that when people, day in and day out, who are working with classified information see that there are so many documents that are completely innocuous that are classified, they lose respect for the system.

JOHNSON: Bradley Manning's supporters say he deserves an award for blowing the whistle on war crimes, civilian casualties and torture. Instead, they say, he was abused by the U.S. military, which held him in solitary confinement for months in a brig in Virginia. Defense lawyer David Coombs made rare public remarks at a rally last year.

DAVID COOMBS: Brad's treatment at Quantico will forever be etched, I believe, in our nation's history as a disgraceful moment in time.

JOHNSON: Manning's already agreed to plead guilty to 10 lesser criminal charges, but not the most serious offenses, including violations of the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence. The government will need to prove Manning had reason to believe the leaks would hurt national security. But Manning's expected to argue he had no intent to harm anyone. The case is already one of the longest and most complex in military history, says Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale.

EUGENE FIDELL: The unanswered question is why this train has run so badly off the tracks.

JOHNSON: Fidell says the military justice system is supposed to prize speed and efficiency, but the drift in the Manning prosecution and other failings undermine public confidence.

FIDELL: It's unfolding at a time that may be a tipping point for the military justice system generally. And what I'm talking about specifically is the widespread consternation and dismay about how the military justice system deals with an entirely unrelated type of criminality, which is sexual assault.

JOHNSON: The judge in the Manning case has ruled some witnesses will testify behind closed doors. The case has already got a rap for excessive secrecy, since many court filings have been impossible to view for reporters and Manning's vocal supporters. One of them is Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who spoke about his frustration at that rally last year.

MICHAEL RATNER: It's hard to hear sometimes. You get no access to any of the court documents, except the defense documents which David Coombs has been able to put up - none of the court orders, none of the motions filed, nothing. And I'm a lawyer, and I sit in that courtroom, and it seems like a completely secret proceeding to me.

JOHNSON: The trial is expected to last 12 weeks. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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