It’s the most high-profile case for an administration that has come under criticism for its crackdown on leakers

U.S. Army Private first class Bradley Manning (25) faced life in prison as his trial began on Monday, three years after he was charged with providing reams of highly-sensitive material to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, in the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history.

Since then, Pfc. Manning has admitted to giving the material to WikiLeaks and pleaded guilty to charges that would send him to prison for up to 20 years. But the U.S. military and the Obama administration are pursuing a charge of aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence.

The trial on that most serious charge and 20 other offences started on Monday for the former intelligence analyst from Oklahoma. The judge took up procedural matters and opening statements were expected to begin later on Monday.

It’s the most high-profile case for an administration that has come under criticism for its crackdown on leakers. The six prosecutions since Mr. Obama took office are more than in all other presidencies combined.

Pfc. Manning, a slightly-built soldier, sat calmly in the courtroom in his dark green dress uniform as the trial began. He chose to have his court-martial heard by a judge instead of a jury. It is expected to run all summer.

In February, Pfc. Manning told military judge Army Colonel Denise Lind he leaked the material to expose the American military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he did not believe the information would harm the U.S. and he wanted to start a debate on the role of the military and foreign policy.

The judge accepted his guilty plea to reduced charges for about half of the alleged offenses, but prosecutors did not and moved forward with a court-martial on charges including violations of the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Pfc. Manning’s supporters hail him as a whistleblowing hero and a political prisoner. Others view him as a traitor.

About 20 Manning supporters demonstrated in the rain outside the visitor gate at Fort Meade. They waved signs reading “free Bradley Manning” and “protect the truth”.

U.S. officials have said the more than 700,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports and State Department cables sent to WikiLeaks endangered lives and national security

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