FT. MEADE, Md. – Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was convicted Tuesday of violating the Espionage Act and faces up to 136 years in prison, but his acquittal on the even more serious charge of aiding the enemy was hailed as a victory for the press and the Internet against the government’s crackdown on leaks of classified information.
Manning’s leak of more than 700,000 State Department cables, terrorism detainee assessments, combat logs and videos was the largest breach of classified secrets in U.S. history. Among the information was a now-infamous video of an Apache combat helicopter attack in Iraq in which U.S. soldiers fired on civilians and killed 12, including two Reuters journalists.
He becomes one of only two people ever convicted under the Espionage Act for making classified data available to the public; the other, Samuel L. Morison, a government security analyst convicted in 1985, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton on his final day in office.
“We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” said David Coombs, his chief defense lawyer, who was greeted by applause and thanks from Manning supporters when he left the courtroom. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”
Under the aiding the enemy charge, Manning, now 25, could have been sent to prison for life with no parole. The military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, heard the case without a jury and did not explain her verdicts. She appeared to have accepted defense arguments that Manning did not understand releasing the material could allow al-Qaida and other foreign terror organizations to use the information to harm the United States.
The government’s theory – that even if Manning did not directly convey information to an enemy, he could be charged with that crime because information released to the public could be obtained by U.S. adversaries – had serious implications for whistle-blowers and those who provide information about classified programs to journalists.
Prosecutors “pushed a theory that making information available on the Internet – whether through WikiLeaks, in a personal blog posting, or on the website of the New York Times – can amount to ‘aiding the enemy,’ ” said Widney Brown, senior director for international law and policy at Amnesty International. That, Brown said, “is ludicrous.”
A conviction for aiding the enemy would have “severely crippled the operation of a free press,” said Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communications at Boston University.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Manning wore a blue dress uniform, wire rim glasses and a prison pallor after three years in pretrial confinement. He stood at ramrod attention and listened without emotion as the judge read the guilty and not guilty verdicts in some two dozen separate charges.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin today, with each side expected to present about 10 witnesses. Manning’s lawyers may put him on the stand.
If so, it would be the second time he has addressed the court. In February, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges of mishandling classified data. He said then that after collecting intelligence on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “I began to become depressed with the situation we had become mired in year after year.”
After the sentencing, Manning’s top supervisor, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, could toss out some or all of the guilty verdicts and, theoretically, release him.
Manning was arrested in the spring of 2010 after the documents he took from government computer databases began appearing in explosive style on WikiLeaks. For months he was held incommunicado, and his lawyers complained he was kept naked and tortured emotionally before his trial began in June.
Manning elected to allow Judge Lind to hear the case without a jury, likely worried that a panel of fellow soldiers weighing his fate would not be pleased that some of the material he gave to WikiLeaks was found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan after the al-Qaida leader was killed by Navy SEALs in May 2011.
Military prosecutors presented evidence that Manning underwent extensive training about safeguarding classified data before becoming an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, and that he instructed other soldiers in security procedures.
“He was a traitor, a traitor who understood the value of compromised information in the hands of the enemy and took deliberate steps to ensure that they, along with the world, received it,” Major Ashden Fein, the chief prosecutor, told the judge.
The defense, however, portrayed Manning as a small-town youth from Oklahoma who joined the Army with good intentions, only to become deeply bothered when he discovered alleged government misconduct. Coombs said Manning was a whistle-blower, a “young, naive, good-intentioned soldier.”
The young soldier has spawned a worldwide group of sympathizers who have rallied in his defense, urged his release and floated his name for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Tuesday morning, hours before Manning learned his fate, two dozen supporters, many wearing black “TRUTH” T-shirts, hoisted signs and waved at workers arriving at Fort Meade in Maryland, which also houses the highly secretive National Security Agency and the Defense Information Systems Agency.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was asked before the verdicts whether a long prison sentence was worth it to Manning.
“That’s something Bradley Manning has to weigh up,” Assange told CNN. “He was willing to take that risk because he believes apparently that the result is so important.”