FORT MEADE, Md. -- Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who laid bare America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by covertly transmitting a massive trove of sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, has been convicted on 19 of 21 charges, including 6 counts of espionage. He was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, the most serious and controversial charge laid against him.
After warning a courtroom packed with 30 spectators, almost all of them Manning supporters, that she would accept no disruptions, the judge overseeing his military court martial, Col. Denise Lind, rapidly delivered her verdict in a crisp voice.
For journalists watching the proceedings from a remote media room, there was no time to gauge Manning's reaction before the military cut off a live feed from the courtroom.
The prosecution's novel legal theory that Manning knew his disclosures to WikiLeaks, once published on the Internet, would wind up in al Qaeda's possession could have had implications that extended beyond the fate of the 25-year-old Crescent, Okla., native.
Although he had admitted the underlying fact of his disclosures to WikiLeaks, and to many of the lesser charges against him, the prosecution nonetheless went ahead with trying to prove Manning was guilty of aiding al Qaeda. Press freedom advocates had warned that if he was convicted on that count, the verdict would threaten to criminalize both journalists and their sources -- a possibility that still lingers on with the Espionage Act convictions.
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor who testified during the trial for the defense that WikiLeaks was seen as a legitimate news organization when Manning made his leaks, said "the judge's verdict on aiding the enemy was important for the future of national security journalism, but we still have to wait for a sentence."
Leak-based reporting is increasingly becoming the only way to conduct serious investigative reporting, Benkler said. Manning now faces up to 136 years in prison on his convictions. If he is given a long term, Benkler said, Manning's court martial will still serve as a stark warning for every source that they may have to pay a heavy price for revealing the secrets the government is keeping in their name.
"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," said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "Since Manning 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."
The verdict brings to a close the three-year period since Manning's arrest in May 2010 that saw the private first class living in a state of limbo, subjected to conditions in solitary confinement that a UN investigator compared to torture. Even a term significantly shorter than the maximum punishment -- which judges rarely impose -- could mean he spends the rest of his life behind bars. The sentencing phase of the trial, which could feature significant testimony from both government and defense witnesses on the impact of Manning's leaks, will begin Wednesday morning.
When they were made public in 2010 and 2011, Manning's leaks -- 391,832 battlefield reports from Iraq, 75,000 reports from Afghanistan, and 251,287 State Department Cables -- rocked the world with their details on the intimate doings of the Departments of Defense and State. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton protested the damage she said they had done to international relations, and once Manning was arrested in May 2010, the current chair of the House Intelligence committee suggested that he should face the death penalty.
Manning's supporters include Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, and Edward Snowden, whose leaks began to be published just three days after Manning's trial started. Since his arrest Manning's supporters have maintained that he's "a classic whistleblower," words Snowden has since used himself.
In his closing arguments defense attorney David Coombs singled out one leak in particular: the chilling video of a U.S. Apache helicopter gunship mowing down nine people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
That file, he suggested, proves that Manning was a whistleblower reacting to horrible events on the ground -- not someone who wanted his leaks to wind up on the compound of Osama bin Laden, as they eventually did.
"There's nothing in there that aids the enemy," said Lorna VanderZanden, an Arlington, Va., resident who rallied with about 30 other supporters in front of Fort Meade the morning of the verdict. "What's there is verification that our helicopter crews are operating out of bloodlust -- that they are killing needlessly."
But over the two-month course of the trial, the government offered a very different timeline of Manning's motivation and leaks. Manning was not, Maj. Ashden Fein said, acting out a "crisis of conscience." Instead, the prosecutor argued Manning sought out WikiLeaks -- and the hacker fame it could bring him -- almost as soon as he deployed to Iraq.
Manning was, in Fein's words, a "narcissist" and a "traitor."
A government forensics expert testified that Manning created a text file with contact information for Julian Assange on November 29, 2009, just two weeks after he reached Forward Operating Base Hammer east of Baghdad on his deployment. Prosecutors claimed that Manning's first transmission of classified information -- of encrypted video of an Afghanistan airstrike that killed scores of civilians -- occurred at the end of that month.
And along the way, the government offered what prosecutor Cpt. Angel Overgaard called "a mountain of circumstantial evidence" to show that Manning knew his leaks would wind up in al Qaeda's hands. Knowledge is a necessary element of the aiding the enemy charge, and it was the most contested during the first phase of the trial.
Coombs countered the prosecution's timeline and account of Manning's knowledge of terrorists' use of the Internet with one of his own.
The leaks started later -- on December 31, 2009 -- in response to a chilling event, Coombs said. When a roadside bomb missed an American convoy on Christmas Eve but killed a member of an Iraqi family, Manning was the only one on his base not to celebrate. Deeply moved by the incident, Manning started sending WikiLeaks the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs. And then, when members of his unit viewed the shocking "Collateral Murder" Apache video, Manning researched the incident and released the video.
In her decision Lind apparently accepted Coombs' timeline of events -- or at least decided there was not enough evidence to support the government's version. Aside from aiding the enemy, the only other charge on which Manning was found not guilty was the first leak in the government's chronology, that Afghanistan airstrike video.
Coombs asked in his closing statement whether the evidence showed, as the prosecution had it, that Manning was "a traitor, had no loyalty to this country or the flag and wanted to systematically harvest and download as much information as possible for his true employer, WikiLeaks." Or, he proposed, was his client a "young, naive with good intentions soldier who had human life in his humanist beliefs center to his decisions, whose sole purpose was, maybe I just can make a difference, maybe this can make a change."
Coombs's closing argument there gestured toward his larger argument in the case -- that Manning saw himself as a whistleblower, and that his releases did not harm U.S. interests. But he was prevented by Lind's orders from presenting evidence of Manning's intent and the harm his leaks did or not cause during the merits phase of the trial. As sentencing begins, Coombs will be free to make those claims.
"There is an enormous amount of discretion on the sentence," said David Frakt, a visiting professor of military law at the University of Pittsburgh. "There are no mandatory minimums ... and there are no guidelines of any kind."
Before the trial, former State Department spokesman Patrick Crowley warned that convicting Manning of aiding the enemy risked turning him into a "martyr." Lind avoided that outcome on the most serious charge, but his several convictions on Espionage Act violations still carry potentially grave consequences for press freedom.
"I think [Lind] wanted to avoid setting some type of precedent that she would be looked down upon for, but the remaining charges she had no qualms about," said Nathan Fuller, a staff writer for the Bradley Manning Support Network. "I don't think this ruling bodes very well for [sentencing], but I am heartened to know that the defense will be allowed to make arguments that it was barred from making during the trial -- such as Manning's good intentions ... and damage or lack thereof."
If Manning receives any prison time as a result of his convictions, his sentence will stand in stark contrast to that of the servicemembers who have been involved in alleged U.S. war crimes. After the 2005 Haditha killings in Iraq, where 24 unarmed people died, the only marine to be tried received a reduction in rank and a pay cut.
Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy for Amnesty International, said in a statement that the aggressive prosecution of Manning showed the military's double standard on investigating incidents of its own misdeeds.
"The government’s priorities are upside down," Brown said. "The U.S. 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."
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