NEW YORK -- When a military judge found Pfc. Bradley Manning not guilty Tuesday of aiding the enemy, the gravest of 21 charges against him, she averted a potentially dangerous precedent for journalism.
The government had argued Manning aided America's enemies when he provided information to WikiLeaks that he knew might eventually be viewed by terrorists -- an argument that could have extended to any source leaking documents to a media entity that publishes them, whether WikiLeaks or The New York Times. In fact, a prosecutor in the case stated in January and again two weeks ago that Manning would have faced the same charges if he had leaked documents to established news organizations like the Times, The Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.
But the aiding the enemy charge wasn't the only potential threat to journalists and their sources. That Manning was convicted of six counts of espionage, out of 19 counts total, highlights the Obama administration's unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to prosecute individuals for leaking information not to foreign governments, but to the media. The Obama administration has invoked the Espionage Act seven times, with the most recent example being in the case of Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who shed light on the extent of the U.S. surveillance state with leaks to The Guardian and the Post.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it's a "very scary precedent" that "despite the lack of any evidence that he intended any harm to the United States, Manning faces decades in prison."
In a phone interview with HuffPost, Goitein also spoke of how the charges against Manning could affect journalists and their sources.
"I don't see how it can do anything other than discourage people from giving information on national security issues to reporters," Goitein said. "I would imagine, if I were a journalist, that some significant proportion of sources will dry up as a result of the administration's prosecution, but in particular now, with this conviction."
"That doesn't mean there will be no more whistleblowing," she continued. "There will always be Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens who will risk everything. But you will have fewer of the small-scale disclosures that journalists rely on for national security reporting."
The New York Times, in an editorial published Tuesday afternoon, also noted that Snowden wasn't stopped by "the administration's effort to chill connections between the news media and confidential sources in government." However, the Times editors wrote that investigative journalists should be "reasonably concerned that prosecutions will cut off their access to critical sources of information."
Some civil liberties and journalist rights organizations suggested Tuesday that the Manning verdict could be detrimental to journalism, even without a conviction for aiding the enemy.
"While Manning was not convicted of the most serious charge, we're still concerned about the chilling effect on the press, especially on reporters covering national security issues," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement. "This aggressive prosecution has sent a clear message to would-be leakers."
The ACLU also suggested that sources may increasingly be intimidated from speaking out because of the ruling.
"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," Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said in a statement.
"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 continued.
Reporters Without Borders called the ruling "dangerous," and in a statement took issue with Manning having been convicted for revealing the details of a horrific 2007 U.S. helicopter attack on civilians and journalists in Baghdad, while the actual perpetrators of that incident have gone unpunished.
"Should this reality have been concealed from the U.S. public and international opinion?" Reporters Without Borders asked in a statement. "Which was more serious -- committing such crimes or revealing them to the public?"
Reporters Without Borders also raised similar questions about charges related to Manning's leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks that offered new revelations about the U.S. military's role in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The information that Manning allegedly passed to WikiLeaks -- used by newspapers such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde in coordination with Julian Assange's website -- included revelations of grave abuses in the 'war on terror' launched by the Bush administration," the organization said.
Journalists have spoken in recent months of a chilling effect on investigative journalism, given the crackdown on leaks and the Justice Department's methods of seeking journalists' sources in investigations, including secretly seizing AP phone records and arguing in a warrant that a Fox News reporter was potentially guilty of criminal wrongdoing for reporting.
In a positive step, the Justice Department revised guidelines for dealing with the press in the wake of the controversial methods used against reporters from the AP and Fox News.
But on July 19 came another setback for press freedoms, as New York Times reporter James Risen was again compelled to testify in the government's case against Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA official being charged under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking information about a botched agency mission to disrupt Iran's nuclear program.
Risen, who has battled subpoenas through two administrations over the past six years, could go to prison if he defies the order to testify.