The conviction of Army private Bradley Manning on espionage charges Tuesday makes it increasingly likely that the United States will prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a co-conspirator, according to his attorney and civil liberties groups.
Judge Denise Lind, an Army colonel, found Manning guilty of several violations of the Espionage Act, and he could face life in prison. Press freedom advocates said the verdict adds to their alarm that the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of leakers will discourage whistleblowers from providing critical information on military and intelligence matters.
Military prosecutors in the court-martial portrayed Assange as an “information anarchist” who encouraged Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents. And they insisted that the anti-secrecy group cannot be considered a media organization that published the leaked information in the public interest.
Defense attorneys denied “the claim that Bradley Manning was acting under the direction of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, but the government kept trying to bring that up, trying to essentially say that Julian was a co-conspirator,” said Michael Ratner, Assange’s American attorney and the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. “That’s a very bad sign about what the U.S. government wants to do to Julian Assange.”
A grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. But it is unclear whether any sealed indictments exist or whether Assange has been charged.
“Either there [are] charges already, which I think is very possible, or they now have this and they can say they have one part of the conspiracy,” Ratner said.
While Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, he was only the second person to be convicted of violating the Espionage Act during the Obama administration.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agreed that Manning’s conviction on espionage charges brought Assange “one step closer” to being prosecuted. But he added that “charging a publisher of information under the Espionage Act would be completely unprecedented and put every decent national security reporter in America at risk of jail, because they also regularly publish national security information.”
The government appeared to be at pains during the trial to describe WikiLeaks as an activist organization. U.S. officials have also pointed to the group’s role in helping National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden get from Hong Kong to Moscow as far beyond what a traditional media organization would do.
There are still major hurdles to prosecuting Assange, not least because he fled to the Embassy of Ecuador in London when he was facing extradition to Sweden to be questioned in connection with allegations of sexual assault. Assange, who has since been given political asylum by Ecuador, has now been in the embassy for more than a year. There is still a Swedish warrant for his arrest.
Some activists expressed relief that the government had failed to make its case that Manning had aided the enemy because al-Qaeda was able to access classified material once it was posted by WikiLeaks.
Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, an official history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, said that Manning not being convicted on the charge of aiding the enemy meant that “American democracy had dodged a bullet.” Ellsberg said there was a “very serious prospect” that such a conviction would have deterred “nearly all sources of newspapers for investigative reporting.”
However, Timm said the acquittal was merely a “sliver of good news” because the use of the Espionage Act would still serve as a significant brake on potential whistleblowers who might be motivated to expose wrongdoing or spark public debate.
Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said those “precedent-setting” convictions are particularly significant because the judge “held that subjective motive was irrelevant.”
“We’re seeing a trend towards motive not mattering in espionage cases, and that will have very serious implications for would-be whistleblowers,” she said, adding that it will have a “substantial chilling effect.”
Goitein suggested the effect of the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on whistleblowing “may be skewing the leaks that we are seeing towards the more dramatic and large- scale. Because the only people who are going to be willing to take that risk are people who are on a personal crusade.”