He made WikiLeaks relevant. Now he could spend most of the rest of his life in jail.
Private First Class Bradley Manning has escaped the most serious accusation against him but the 25-year-old was found guilty on other charges, including espionage and stealing government property, in the latest chapter in the U.S. government’s great war on media leaks.
The presiding judge at Pfc. Manning’s court-martial, U.S. Army Colonel Denise Lind, allayed fears she would set a precedent when, in a judgment Tuesday, she found him not guilty of aiding the enemy, a charge that had sent a chill among media outlets and civil-liberties groups.
Still, for the sin of passing thousands of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks, Col. Lind found Pfc. Manning guilty on 20 of 21 lesser counts, including five counts under the Espionage Act. Pfc. Manning had already pleaded guilty to a lesser version of 10 of those charges, for which he could have been jailed for up to 20 years.
His sentencing hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and if Col. Lind chooses to impose the stiffer sentences spelled out under the law, the charges could add up to more than 100 years in prison.
“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,” American Civil Liberties Union director Ben Wizner said in a statement.
The judgment was “an example of national security extremism,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in a statement, arguing that conveying information to the public cannot be espionage.
“Throughout the proceedings, there has been a conspicuous absence: the absence of any victim. The prosecution did not present evidence that – or even claim that – a single person came to harm as a result of Bradley Manning’s disclosures,” the statement said. “The government never claimed Mr. Manning was working for a foreign power. The only ‘victim’ was the U.S. government’s wounded pride.”
The prosecution, led by U.S. Army Major Ashden Fein, had portrayed Pfc. Manning as an irresponsible anarchist.
“Pfc. Manning was not a humanist, he was a hacker … he was not a whistleblower, 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 they, along with the world, received all of it,” Major Fein said in his closing remarks last week.
Beyond the rhetoric of treason, the case was another episode in the post-Sept. 11 struggle between security and liberties.
A whistleblower or leaker?
While the information he gave WikiLeaks was pivotal in the website’s fortunes, Pfc. Manning’s case straddled a grey zone because he didn’t initially articulate his intentions clearly and he appeared to have indiscriminately dumped an unprecedented amount of government records.
He had leaked more than 720,000 classified documents – 380,000 military incident reports in Iraq, another 90,000 battlefield logs from Afghanistan and 250,000 State Department cables.
An intelligence analyst with the 10th Mountain Division, Pfc. Manning was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and worked at Contingency Operating Station Hammer, near Baghdad. In a statement he gave in court in February, he said he began to question his country’s conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, during a leave in early 2010, and wondered if he should make public the material he handled.
“I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He was also looking at diplomatic cables, which were archived on servers he could access. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this type of information should become public … I thought these cables were a prime example of the need for a more open diplomacy.”
He said he contacted the Washington Post and The New York Times without success before turning to WikiLeaks.
Timing is everything
A key, contentious issue during the trial was the exact moment Pfc. Manning accessed and leaked video footage of a 2007 helicopter gunship strike that killed several Iraqis, including two Reuters news agency staffers.
The prosecution said Pfc. Manning downloaded the video just two weeks after his arrival in Iraq, suggesting that he was a reckless leaker who looked for the first opportunity to make mischief.
The defence says Pfc. Manning handled the video at a later date — after he had reflected on the impact of the war on civilians and decided he had to expose what his country was doing.
“It’s an inconvenient truth for them because they need Pfc. Manning to start to work for WikiLeaks in the two weeks that he first arrives on the ground. They need to portray him as anything but what he actually is: a young man who is naive but good-intentioned,” defence lawyer David Coombs said.
Who’s a journalist
The trial grappled with the shifting nature of media in the Internet age.
Pfc. Manning’s lawyer argued that WikiLeaks is a legitimate media outlet, while the prosecution says Pfc. Manning was not a whistleblower leaking to a news outlet, but just a fame-seeker who dumped data indiscriminately.
“Wantonness would be if WikiLeaks was, in fact, an organization that provided information to the enemy. WikiLeaks is no different than New York Times, no different than The Guardian, no different than Der Spiegel. It’s a news organization that has information. And certainly the enemy can go there just like they can go to New York Times,” Mr. Coombs said.
The U.S. government’s campaign against leakers
Whether WikiLeaks is a journalistic outlet or not, the Manning case unfolded as the U.S. government took a hard line against all media leaks. Under President Barack Obama, the government has prosecuted more leak-related cases than all previous administrations.
In the latest development, a federal appeals court ruled last week that New York Times investigative reporter James Risen had to testify in the case of one of his sources, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Jeffrey Sterling.
Last January, former CIA agent John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison for revealing the name of a covert agent to a writer. It was the first time a CIA agent went to jail for leaking classified information to the media.
Mr. Kiriakou initially became known to the public when he spoke out about the use of waterboarding against terror suspects. Mr. Sterling is accused of leaking to Mr. Risen classified details about a botched U.S. plot to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
In an earlier case, a former member of the National Security Agency, Thomas Drake, was charged after he contacted a Baltimore Sun reporter because he felt his concerns about waste and abuse at the NSA went unheeded.
Pfc. Manning’s actions have been compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers – a secret Pentagon study that revealed that Lyndon Johnson’s administration had misled the public during the war in Vietnam – and the more recent leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about his government’s vast electronic surveillance operations.
Of the three, Pfc. Manning has faced the harshest predicament. He has already been in custody for more than three years, including periods in solitary confinement.
Mr. Snowden seems to have drawn a lesson from Pfc. Manning’s fate. Mr. Snowden had access to more sensitive information but, in his dealings so far with the Washington Post and The Guardian, he has made a point of not releasing all the documents he had.
And he didn’t wait to be arrested, flying to Hong Kong, then to Moscow. Being marooned in Russia seemed for Mr. Snowden to be a more palatable option than prison in his country of birth.