UPDATE 1-U.S. soldier awaits judge's verdict in WikiLeaks case
(Adds protesters gathering, observer comment)
FORT MEADE, Md., July 30 (Reuters) - A military judge is due to announce her verdict on Tuesday in the case of U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who faces life in prison without parole if found guilty of aiding the enemy in releasing 700,000 classified documents, including battlefield reports, to the website WikiLeaks.
Army Private First Class Manning, 25, is accused of the largest leak of classified information in United States history. The U.S. government has pushed for the maximum penalty for what it views as a serious breach of national security, while anti-secrecy activists have praised the action as shining a light on shadowy U.S. operations abroad.
This month, Colonel Denise Lind, who is presiding over the court-martial, denied a request by Manning's attorneys to throw out the aiding the enemy charge, the most serious of the 21 counts against him. She said that Manning's training as a low-level intelligence analyst would have taught him that publicly releasing secret information would pose a risk to U.S. national security.
Observers expect Manning, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in March, to be convicted of at least some of the 21 counts.
Army prosecutors contend U.S. security was harmed when the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website published combat videos of an attack by an American Apache helicopter gunship, diplomatic cables and secret details on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay that Manning provided the site while he was a junior intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
A crowd of about 30 Manning supporters gathered outside Fort Meade, where Lind is due to read her verdict at 1 p.m. (1700 GMT).
"I just identify with him," said Sally Pincus, 69, who had traveled from El Cerrito, California, to show her support for the young soldier. Like many others in the crowd, Pincus expressed concern that he would face a life sentence.
"People are nervous about the verdict," she said.
Not all onlookers were sympathetic. One man driving by in a pickup truck stopped to shout "You're all traitors" at the group.
A guilty verdict on most of the counts could make it difficult for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to persuade future sources of information to share classified details with the website.
"That is going to make it more difficult for people who want to deal with Assange. They are going to be at greater risk and that will put his operation at risk," said Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University and former officer in the U.S. Navy.
"It will have a very chilling effect on WikiLeaks," he added.
Manning, originally from Crescent, Oklahoma, opted to have his case heard by a judge, rather than a panel of military jurors.
Military prosecutors have called the defendant a "traitor" for publicly posting information that the U.S. government said could jeopardize national security and intelligence operations.
Defense lawyers described Manning as well-intentioned but naive in hoping that his disclosures would provoke a more intense debate in the United States about diplomatic and military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than three years after Manning's arrest in May 2010, the U.S. intelligence community is reeling again from leaked security documents. The latest revelations came from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has been holed up in the transit area of a Moscow airport for more than a month despite U.S. calls for Russian authorities to turn him over.
WikiLeaks founder Assange has surfaced again as a major player in the newest scandal, this time offering aid to Snowden in eluding authorities to seek asylum abroad.
Assange has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for more than a year to avoid extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual assault. He fears that if sent there, he could be extradited again, to the United States, where he would likely face charges related to the classified documents published by his website.
The cases of Manning and Snowden illustrate the difficulties of keeping government secrets at a time the Internet makes it easy to disseminate them quickly and widely. In addition, more people are granted access to classified data.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Gunna Dickson)