Bradley Manning, accused of WikiLeaks dump, acquitted of aiding enemy

Update, 1:34 p.m.: Bradley Manning has been acquitted of the most serious charge in this case, aiding the enemy, but has been convicted on lesser charges of espionage.

Judge Denise Lind, an Army colonel, is scheduled to announce her verdict in the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning Tuesday at 1 p.m. Manning is accused of providing some 700,000 classified documents to the transparency organization WikiLeaks, and Lind could sentence him to life in prison:

The planned announcement of the verdict follows an eight-week trial, in which military prosecutors argued that Manning, 25, betrayed his oath and his country, and assisted al-Qaeda because the terrorist group was able to access secret material once WikiLeaks posted it.

The government’s pursuit of the charge of aiding the enemy under a theory that had not been used since the Civil War troubled civil libertarians and press-freedom advocates. They said the publication of secret defense information online could expose any leaker to life in prison and will chill press scrutiny of the military.

The government relied on a case from the Civil War to bring the charge: In that trial, a Union Army private, Henry Vanderwater, was found guilty of aiding the enemy when he leaked a Union roster to an Alexandria newspaper. Vanderwater received a sentence of three months hard labor and was dishonorably discharged.

Manning has pleaded guilty to a number of lesser charges, including unauthorized possession of information relating to the national defense.

The sentencing phase of the trial at Fort Meade in Maryland would begin Wednesday, if Manning is convicted. If there is a conviction, the prosecution is expected to press the judge, Col. Denise Lind, to impose the maximum sentence. The government would present in a closed session of the court the classified damage assessments conducted by government agencies after the disclosures by WikiLeaks.

Defense attorney David Coombs would also be able to offer mitigating evidence about Manning’s motives and his state of mind when he turned the material over to the group.

Manning would be likely to serve any sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Manning, of Crescent, Okla., enlisted in the Army in October 2007, hoping to fund his college education through the G.I. Bill. He trained as an all-source intelligence analyst at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y.

The military said Manning’s service was troubled from the start. He took more time than usual to pass basic training and struggled to connect with fellow soldiers. In October, 2009, Manning’s unit was deployed to Iraq, where as part of his assignment he was able to access classified networks containing military and diplomatic documents.

Julie Tate

The military prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, aimed to persuade Lind that Manning was motivated solely by a desire for fame:

The attorney displayed a photo of a radiant Manning, smiling as he took a photo of himself in a mirror.

“This is not a picture of a troubled person conflicted by his actions,” Fein said, speaking behind a wooden lectern in a small courtroom at Fort Meade. “This is a picture of someone who thinks he was finally becoming famous.”

Fein said the private’s specialized training as an intelligence analyst made him fully cognizant of how damaging unloading troves of classified information could be for U.S. national security. . . .

“Hillary Clinton is going to have a heart attack,” Fein quoted Manning as having said, referring to how he expected the then-secretary of state would react when she learned that hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables had entered the public domain.

Ernesto Londoño

Manning’s lawyer argued that the private wanted to expose abuses:

Defense attorney David Coombs said Manning’s decision to leak classified U.S. documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks came only after he began pursuing intelligence reports and found evidence of wanton use of force and unjustified policies.

Manning was “willing to pay a price” for his actions, Coombs said. The young soldier sought to “spark a worldwide discussion” about what he came to see as U.S. abuses that were going unnoticed and unpunished, the attorney added.

To make his point, the defense played for Army judge Col. Denise Lind a video of a 2007 operation in Baghdad during which U.S. Apache helicopter pilots opened fire on a group of Iraqis that included two journalists and children.

“They are firing into a cloud of dust,” Coombs said, speaking slowly and deliberately as a grainy video depicting Iraqis scrambling after coming under fire and then falling on the ground played in the small Fort Meade courtroom. “They laugh about that. Shoot him some more. Just shooting people on the ground.”

A video of the incident, in which an employee of the Reuters news agency was killed, was among the files Manning is accused of having transmitted to WikiLeaks. The disclosure was striking because it depicted Army pilots speaking with callousness about the men they were shooting. After it was clear children had been among those wounded, one pilot mutters that the militants are to blame for bringing their kids to battle.

“Some people view this as their home, as their streets, not as the battlefield,” Coombs said.

The attorney urged Lind to view WikiLeaks as a legitimate news organization in an effort to argue that Manning, now 25, should not be convicted on the most serious charge, aiding the enemy. Coombs said Manning sought to disclose information to a wide audience and never took action to directly assist American enemies.

Ernesto Londoño

A conviction for Manning could set at least two important precedents. The charge of aiding the enemy, part of military law, could affect relations between members of the armed services and members of the media-:

Whistleblower and transparency advocates have decried Manning being charged with aiding the enemy, saying it could set a dangerous precedent for freedom of the press in the age of the Internet.

Manning’s prosecutors argued that making information available on the Internet — whether by giving it to WikiLeaks, or putting it in a personal blog or releasing it to newspaper — can amount to aiding the enemy. The defense called that a “slippery slope” that could discourage those who want to expose government wrongdoing by taking information to the press.

“This is a new situation that courts have not yet had to deal with,” said national security lawyer Mark Zaid.

He said aiding the enemy “historically was literally giving information, such as ‘Here’s the location of troops across enemy lines,’ to the enemy so the enemy could react. It was never intended nor envisioned to deal with the current situations we have.”

Victor Hansen, associate dean at the New England School of Law in Boston, said any precedent would be in the details of judge Col. Denise Lind’s verdict.

“What factual information was introduced at trial that she thinks links into the specific intent behind his actions? It’s a higher standard than saying, ‘Well, it’s possible this could have gone into enemy hands.’ There has to be a more particularized intent on his part that he did it for that reason.”

Associated Press

The trial will also be the first time a judge rules on a case in which the Obama administration has brought civilian espionage charges against an individual for providing classified information to the media:

The Obama administration has charged at least seven individuals with violations of the Espionage Act, but so far none of those cases have been ruled on by a judge or jury. The military trial against WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning could therefore set an important precedent about the legal treatment of leakers.

“No Espionage Act charge brought by this administration in connection with media leaks has ever been resolved on its merits by a judge or jury,” said Elizabeth Goitein, the top national security lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

The 25-year-old is the fifth person to be charged by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act, a 96-year-old statute. It’s this law that President Obama’s been using to accuse civilian leakers of betraying the state. But while it’s been used many times before in complaints, none of these cases have reached the legal merits.

That’s because previous trials involving the Act have always been resolved in other ways. For example, in the case of Thomas Drake, who leaked information about NSA spending, the government’s case fell apart. Some leakers have gone to jail, but that has been the result of plea bargains, not a conviction by a judge or jury. For example, espionage charges against John Kiriakou, the CIA employee who leaked details of the agency’s waterboarding practices, were dropped after he agreed to plead guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

It’s unlikely Manning would be altogether acquitted of his espionage charges, since he already pleaded guilty to a watered-down version of them earlier this year. (This process, known as pleading guilty by exceptions and substitutions, means Manning acknowledged some responsibility without directly answering the specific charges brought against him by the government.) If it did happen, however, it would be a major blow to the White House, which has already invoked the Espionage Act twice since Manning.

Brian Fung

For coverage of Edward Snowden, who has also been charged with espionage for providing classified information to the media, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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