Pfc. Bradley Manning

A military judge issued the verdict today in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier prosecuted for releasing US government information, which included evidence of torture, war crimes, abuse, corruption and other misconduct, to WikiLeaks.

Manning was not found guilty of the most serious offense that he faced, the “aiding the enemy” offense, which charged that he had knowingly given intelligence indirectly to the enemy through WikiLeaks. However, he was found guilty of five Espionage Act offenses, which is quite significant in the war on leaks and whistleblowers that has been waged by the administration of President Barack Obama.

He was found guilty of multiple stealing offenses and of exceeding authorized access on a government computer. Altogether, as the trial enters the sentencing phase, Manning faces a maximum punishment of 136 years in prison.

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Privacy and Technology Project, Ben Wizner, declared in reaction to the verdict, “While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act

“Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information – which carry significant punishment – it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future,” Wizner added.

Reflecting upon the “aiding the enemy” charge that was brought, Widney Brown, the senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, stated, “The government’s pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge was a serious overreach of the law, not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to Wikileaks.”

“It was wrong for the government to charge Mr. Manning with the offense of ‘aiding the enemy.’ Mr. Manning pleaded guilty to lesser offenses related to his disclosure of classified information. That should have ended the case,” the National Whistleblowers Center said in a statement.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which had pushed for greater transparency in the court martial, condemned the verdict, “While the “aiding the enemy” charges (on which Manning was rightly acquitted) received the most attention from the mainstream media, the Espionage Act itself is a discredited relic of the WWI era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and antiwar activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blow the whistle on war crimes, other abuses and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment.”

The group added, “Manning’s treatment, prosecution, and sentencing have one purpose: to silence potential whistleblowers and the media as well. One of the main targets has been our clients, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, for publishing the leaks. Given the US government’s treatment of Manning, Assange should be granted asylum in his home country of Australia and given the protections all journalists and publishers deserve.”

Assange himself reacted, “The Obama administration has been chipping away [at] democratic freedoms in the United States. With today’s verdict, Obama has hacked off much more. The administration is intent on deterring and silencing whistleblowers, intent on weakening freedom of the press.” He also said, “Bradley Manning’s alleged disclosures have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions, and induced democratic reform. He is the quintessential whistleblower.”

Manning disclosed the video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack, which shows two Reuters journalists being gunned down in Baghdad. He disclosed military incident reports from Afghanistan revealing an assassination squad, Task Force 373, was being operated by the United States. He disclosed similar reports from Iraq that showed an order, Frago 242, had been adopted by the US and UK as a way of excusing the countries from having to take responsibility for torture or ill-treatment of Iraqis by Iraqi military or security forces.

He disclosed over 250,000 diplomatic cables that showed: US diplomats spying on United Nations leadership, the Yemen president agreed to secretly allow US cruise missile attacks that he would say were launched by his government, Iceland’s banking crisis had partly been a result of bullying by European countries, US and China joined together to obstruct a major agreement on climate change by European countries, US government was well aware of rampant corruption in the Tunisian ruling family of President Ben Ali, the FBI trained torturers in Egypt’s state security service, both the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama pressured Spain and Germany not to investigate torture authorized by Bush administration officials, and foreign contractors managed by DynCorp hired Afghan boys to dress up as girls and dance for them.

Manning also disclosed more than 700 detainee assessment reports on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay that showed children and elderly men were imprisoned, information from a “small number of detainees” who were tortured was relied upon by US  authorities and al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj had been sent to the prison “to provide information” on the “al Jazeera news network’s training program, telecommunications equipment and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview” of bin Laden.

As Brown of Amnesty International also said, “The government’s priorities are upside down. 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 – reveal credible evidence of unlawful behavior by the government.”

Findings in the verdict by military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, are not publicly available yet so there is a limited amount that is known about the rationale behind the judge’s decision to convict Manning. Yet, finding Manning guilty of violating multiple Espionage Act violations does deserve much attention.

Bradley Manning was not and is not a spy yet he, like seven other people, were charged with violating the Espionage Act by the Justice Department under Obama. They had a law never intended to be used against leaks brought down upon them like a sledgehammer.

It is likely that she found it easier to convict Manning because prosecutors invoked a recent ruling in the case of Stephen Kim, who is a former State Department employee charged with violating the Espionage Act after he released classified information on North Korea’s nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly lowered the burden of proof for prosecutors and ruled they did not have to prove the information could be potentially damaging to the United States or that it would “advantage a foreign nation” in order to convict Kim of violating the Espionage Act. Kollar-Kotelly determined having to do so would encourage a jury to second guess individuals who had decided to classify the information.

During the court martial, the judge has opposed questioning the classification determinations of original classification authorities, who decided to classify the information, unless information in the documents (or video) could be found in open source materials. What this does is transform the Espionage Act into an Official Secrets Act, an anti-leaks law, which is not how the law was ever intended to be used when it was passed; however, convincing the courts that this law can be used to punish other offenses has been more effective than trying to get Congress to pass an anti-leaks law.

Therefore, the key result from the Manning verdict may be that the Justice Department and other parts of the US government are emboldened more than ever to bring leak prosecutions and charge individuals, including national security whistleblowers who lack protections under laws, with Espionage Act offenses, even when there is no evidence of acts of espionage.

Illustration by Clark Stoeckley. Used with permission.