Bradley Manning was found not guilty today of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge the Army leaker faced in his court martial. Manning was, however, found guilty of 20 other counts, which could get him up to 136 years in a military prison. Sentencing hearings begin on Wednesday morning and will likely continue over the next several weeks as the government calls witnesses to argue that Manning should face a lengthy prison sentence.
“While we are obviously disappointed in today’s verdicts, we are happy that Judge Lind agreed with us that Brad never intended to help America’s enemies in any way,” Manning’s family said in a statement. “Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform.”
The 25-year-old Army private’s leaks revealed an unprecedented level of information about the way America prosecuted its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Manning has been hailed by government transparency advocates as a modern-day counterpart to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Manning, who had already pled guilty to 10 of the espionage-related charges, faced life in prison if he had been convicted of aiding the enemy. (The military judge in his case, Col. Denise Lind, had denied a defense motion to drop the charge.) That charge could have had far-ranging implications for investigative journalists, as it would have criminalized the act of publishing information that enemies of the U.S. could access – something that newspapers do every single day. Col. Lind also found Manning innocent of espionage for the charge of leaking video of the 2009 Granai massacre in Afghanistan, but guilty to other charges of espionage.
Manning was found guilty of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a statute critics have called out of date and overly broad. It is the same statute that hacker Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer was found guilty under, and that activist Aaron Swartz was prosecuted under.
The verdict arrives as President Obama’s Department of Justice has come under increasing scrutiny for its war on whistleblowers and journalists who publish classified information. Recently, the DOJ successfully argued in an appeals court that journalists should not be protected from identifying their sources if the government compels it. The journalist in that case, New York Times reporter James Risen, has said he will go to jail rather than reveal his confidential sources.
“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 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.”
Though the U.S. has ended the war in Iraq and plans to remove large numbers of troops from Afghanistan by December 2014, Defense Department officials have said that the broader war against al-Qaeda could last for decades. That war is fought in increasing secrecy, with little or no public discussion, and as Pro Publica recently reported, the list of which entities the U.S. is at war with is itself classified.
Jailbreaks over the past two weeks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan have renewed questions of al Qaeda’s power in the Middle East, and recent reports suggest that increasing numbers of al Qaeda members are fighting against the al-Assad regime in Syria. What these developments will mean for U.S. foreign policy in the coming months and years is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that U.S. officials continue to see al Qaeda as a threat. If the Obama administration’s current policies are any predictor of the future, U.S. wars in the Middle East will be fought covertly, under heavy classification and secrecy regimes. That means that U.S. citizens will continue to be kept in the dark on how their government is waging war – unless people like Bradley Manning continue to come forward to expose wrongdoing and criminality committed by the U.S. government.
“It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message,” Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “The U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior.”