Activists trying to build sympathy for the Army private accused in the WikiLeaks case made a splash Thursday by confronting President Barack Obama with a song of protest at a fund-raiser they had paid more than $100,000 to attend.

Pfc. Bradley Manning faces a court martial on charges including aiding the enemy, for allegedly leaking thousands of government documents to operators of the WikiLeaks website. They allegedly included military war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and diplomatic cables from embassies around the world.

Twenty-one members of the Bradley Manning Support Network—some donning shirts that read “Free Bradley Manning”—interrupted the president’s speech at a $5,000-a-seat event at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco.

They broke into a song protesting his treatment in military custody: “Alone in a 6×12 cell sits Bradley / 23 hours a day is night / The 5th and 8th Amendments say this kind of thing ain’t right / We paid our dues, where’s our change?”

Several of the protesters were asked to leave but others remained. Mr. Obama later spoke with some of them and defended the government’s handling of the case, saying the release of the documents caused damage to diplomatic sources, according to the activists. Another person who witnessed the exchange offered a similar account.

The interruption was part of a campaign that has emerged in recent months attempting to raise Mr. Manning’s profile and portray him as a dissident being wrongfully prosecuted by the government. Mr. Manning’s supporters, including 1971 Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, have held several protests in his defense.

Organizers of the campaign say their aim is to mitigate his sentence. Military prosecutors have said they wouldn’t seek the death penalty on what could be capital charges, but the possibility technically remains because, under the military system, the court-martial’s convening authority—a high-ranking military official who oversees the trial—can overrule prosecutors.

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