By Tom Ramstack
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - U.S. diplomats reacted with "horror and disbelief" when WikiLeaks began publishing classified information in 2010, a U.S. State Department official testified on Thursday at the court-martial sentencing hearing for Bradley Manning, the soldier convicted of the leaks.
To try to establish the extent of damage caused by the anti-secrecy website's exposure of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic and military documents and video, prosecutor Captain Angel Overgaard asked the official, Elizabeth Dibble, to describe the reaction.
"Horror and disbelief that our diplomatic communications had been released and were available on public websites for the world to see," testified Dibble, principal deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
U.S. Army Private First Class Manning, 25, was convicted on Tuesday on criminal charges including espionage and theft, but was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, sparing him a life sentence without parole.
A military judge began hearing arguments on Wednesday in the sentencing phase of the trial in Fort Meade, Maryland, over the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history. The convictions carry a maximum possible sentence of 136 for the former military intelligence analyst.
Manning's lawyers, who had portrayed him as naive but well intentioned, were expected to ask Judge Colonel Denise Lind for leniency. They argued that the soldier's aim had been to provoke a broader debate on U.S. military policy, not to harm anyone.
Prosecutors had said Manning hurt national security and damaged relationships with intelligence sources overseas. To solidify their case, on Thursday afternoon Overgaard called State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary John Feeley, asking whether he saw "any impact" in Latin America from the leaked documents.
"I did," Feeley answered. The judge immediately ordered the court into a closed session, a common practice in military courts when there is a need to discuss classified information.
The rest of Feeley's open session testimony touched on his career at the State Department and his observations about foreign governments, and the sometimes difficult U.S. relations with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
The sentencing hearing, which was expected to last at least another week, will resume on Friday.
Manning was a working in Iraq in 2010 when he was arrested and charged with leaking files, including videos of a 2007 attack by a U.S. helicopter gunship in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. Other files contained diplomatic cables and secret details on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
On Thursday, Manning's lawyer, Major Thomas Hurley, asked Dibble whether she always agreed with the government's decision to classify certain documents.
Dibble said she did not know of any problems with the U.S. government's system for classifying secret documents.
At another point, Hurley quoted former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that governments in other countries knew the U.S. government "leaks like a sieve."
Dibble responded: "I would say it makes a good sound bite, but I don't agree with it."
She also testified that one of the foundations of diplomacy was establishing credibility, a time-consuming process that involves getting to know people and listening to their views.
"There is an expectation of a certain degree of confidentiality, so a person will not be burned," Dibble said.
Observers said the guilty verdict could have "a chilling effect" on WikiLeaks by making potential sources in the United States more wary about handing over secret information.
It could also encourage the United States to seek to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in publishing the information.
Assange has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for over a year to avoid extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual assault. The activist says he fears Sweden might hand him over to U.S. authorities.
(Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Grant McCool and Gunna Dickson)