|Investigators said contact information for Julian Assange, above, was found on a computer belonging to Manning [EPA]
US army investigators have presented evidence for the first time directly linking Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of spilling secrets to WikiLeaks, to Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website.
The investigators told a US military hearing at an army base in Maryland on Monday that contact information for Assange was found on a computer hard drive belonging to Manning.
Prosecutors sought to link the two men during a hearing to determine whether Manning should face a court martial over his suspected role in the biggest leak of classified documents in US history.
Mark Johnson and David Shaver, computer forensic investigators with the US army's Computer Crime Investigative Unit (CCIU), told the hearing they had found logs from an online chat between Manning's account and an account which at one point was alleged to be connected to Assange. The logs discussed sending and receiving US government information.
Asked if Manning and Assange seemed to know each other, Johnson, a private contractor who works for the CCIU, said they did.
"At some point I believe they talked about: 'Did you receive information?' Where would that come from if they hadn't known each other in the past," Johnson said.
The digital forensics experts also said they recovered State Department cables, US military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and other classified material from Manning's computers and storage devices.
Manning faces 22 charges, which include "aiding the enemy" and unlawfully causing intelligence to be published on the
Internet. He faces life imprisonment if convicted of the most serious charge.
'Removing the fog of war'
The 24-year-old is suspected of downloading thousands of classified or confidential documents from the military's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet. Those files are thought to have later appeared on WikiLeaks.
Among the documents are some 260,000 State Department cables which led to an embarrassing string of revelations for the US and other governments.
The investigators said they had found a file on an SD card recovered from Manning's aunt's house that contained 91,000 US military field reports from Afghanistan and another 400,000 from Iraq.
A message allegedly from Manning described the cache as being "one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare".
Shaver, head of the army's CCIU's digital forensics and research branch, said investigators had also found 10,000 State Department cables that were apparently not passed on to WikiLeaks because of a corrupted file.
Shaver said the files were found on a computer used by Manning between November 2009, when he was deployed to Iraq, and May 2010, when he was arrested.
Prosecutors have portrayed Manning as a well-trained soldier adept with computers who violated his duties.
Defence lawyers have argued that he struggled with gender issues and emotional problems and that his superiors repeatedly failed to provide counselling, take disciplinary action or revoke his security clearance.
Assange, who is in the UK fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges, has consistently denied knowing the source of the material received by his site but has expressed support for Manning.
Assange does not presently face charges in the US related to publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of
pages of US military reports and State Department cables. But a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has been collecting evidence on Assange and his associates for months.