A US Army judge acquitted Pfc. Bradley Manning on Tuesday of the charge of aiding the enemy, but found him guilty of around 20 other offenses, including six counts of espionage.
The 25-year-old soldier could still face more than 100 years in prison for releasing 750,000 pages of classified material to WikiLeaks that exposed some of the darker aspects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his acquittal on the most serious charge means that he has a chance of escaping life behind bars.
The sentencing phase of the trial will begin Wednesday morning, according to ABC News, although it could take several weeks before Manning’s fate is decided.
The verdict will ease some of the more alarmist views of the case, which has raised hackles both at home and abroad. But Manning supporters are unlikely to be placated by anything less than full vindication of a man many consider a hero.
(Press Freedom Foundation published the transcript here and Leaksource posted a chart of the charges and corresponding verdicts here.)
Reactions so far have been mixed.
"This is the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower. It is a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism," WikiLeaks said. The anti-secrecy group called Manning a "quintessential whistleblower."
Amnesty International released a statement saying that the court’s decision was evidence of misplaced priorities in the administration.
"The government’s priorities are upside down,” said Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International. “The US government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence. Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing.”
Two congressmen were pleased by the result.
Mike Rogers, R-Mich, and Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md, chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said justice was served by Tuesday’s verdict, NBC News reported.
“Pfc. Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes,” they said in a joint statement. “There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security.”
Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland, has nominated Manning for the Nobel Peace Prize. In an op-ed in The Guardian last month, the Nobel laureate elevated the young soldier to a pantheon of persecuted figures, placing the United States in some rather unsavory circles:
“Around the world, Manning is hailed as a peacemaker and a hero. His nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize is a reflection of this. Yet at his home in America, Manning stands trial for charges of espionage and ‘aiding the enemy.’ This should not be considered a refutation of his candidacy — rather, he is in good company. Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo were each awarded the prize in recent years while imprisoned by their home countries.”
A grassroots drive to send Manning to Oslo has garnered close to 100,000 signatures.
But Manning faces an uphill battle in a quest for hero status among Americans. A recent Rasmussen poll indicated 59 percent of respondents feel that his revelations have damaged national security, and fully 33 percent support life imprisonment for the leaker.
A White House petition to free Manning has to date received a mere 6,619 signatures — a stark contrast to the more than 130,000 names supporting a pardon for National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The White House released a terse statement in response to the Manning petition, saying, “The military justice system is charged with enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Accordingly, the White House declines to comment on the specific case raised in this petition.”
But the executive branch hasn't always been so reticent. Back in 2010, Vice President Joe Biden told David Gregory of MSNBC’s “Meet the Press” that Manning and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who published the material, were very far from hero status.
“I would argue that it's closer to being a high-tech terrorist than… the Pentagon Papers,” Biden said, referring to the 1971 leaks that revealed the US government was misleading the public about the Vietnam War.
Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers, has been a tireless champion of Manning.
“I was Bradley Manning,” Ellsberg has said on more than one occasion. “I did decide… that the fact that [the Pentagon Papers] might help educate the public and end the war was worth my life. I strongly suspect … that the same is true of Bradley Manning.”
Manning has insisted that he was trying to prompt a debate on the nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was the crux of his defense. His lawyer David Coombs sought to characterize Manning as “a young, naive, but good-intentioned soldier who had human life and his humanist beliefs center to his decisions — whose sole focus was, ‘maybe I just can make a difference, maybe make a change.'”
But the prosecution harshly dismissed such notions.
“Private First Class Manning was not a humanist. He was a hacker,” the chief prosecutor, Army Maj. Ashden Fein, said in his summation. “Your honor, he was not a troubled young soul … He was not a whistleblower. He was a traitor.”
The verdict does not relieve Manning of charges of espionage. It merely attests to the fact that the government failed to prove he had intended to assist the nation’s enemies by providing them with the information he released.
The charge was based on reports that Al Qaeda had been able to download Manning’s revelations from the internet. The prosecution claimed that Navy SEALs had turned up some of the WikiLeaks materials when they raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011.
The government also failed to demonstrate that any substantive damage had been done to national security by Manning’s revelations.
“In the three years since the leaks began, there has still been no public evidence that they in fact caused significant damage,” Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler argued in The New Republic. Benkler was a witness for the defense in the Manning trial.
The case still has dangerous implications for investigative journalism.
Benkler has called Manning’s prosecution “a clear and present danger to journalism in the national security arena,” and an attempt to use the case “to push a novel and aggressive interpretation of the law that would arm the government with a much bigger stick to prosecute vaguely defined national security leaks, a big stick that could threaten not just members of the military, but civilians too.”
The case raises troubling questions about the Obama administration’s commitment to press freedom and to transparency in general.
When he first ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama appeared full of goodwill and admiration for whistleblowers. Change.gov, the website of Obama’s transition team, praised those who risked their jobs or even their freedom to expose wrongdoing, as cited by Sunlight Foundation:
“Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.”
Change.gov has disappeared from the internet, apparently scrubbed following Snowden’s revelations.
The case against Manning has been aggravated by the atmosphere of fear that's permeated the United States ever since the 9/11 attacks. As the Rasmussen poll demonstrated, many Americans put a higher premium on safety these days.
But 40 years ago, Justice Hugo Black wrote a decision for the Supreme Court that permitted The New York Times to continue publication of the Pentagon Papers. Allowing the government to hide its actions does not make Americans safer, he argued.
“Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell,” he wrote. “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security.”