That Manning, an Army intelligence analyst who passed along in excess of 700,000 documents to Wikileaks, was cleared of the “aiding the enemy” rap provided some relief to onlookers. In advance of the verdict, an Associated Press account noted, “Manning’s supporters also worry a conviction on the most serious charge will have a chilling effect on other leakers.” Another piece put it this way: “Critics warned of the potential ‘chilling effect’ such a legal interpretation of ‘aiding the enemy’ could have on reporting, particularly surrounding national security.” Brian Resnick and Matt Berman write in the National Journal, “the ruling today against the prosecution on that one count [aiding the enemy] may seriously reduce the threat to national security whistleblowers, and the media publications who chose to publish their leaks.”
All of this analysis is spot on. A ruling equating the distribution of secrets to a Web site with aiding the enemy would have amounted to a cataclysmic precedent. In an interview this morning, Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times and a close observer of the proceedings, noted, “If she decides to convict on charge of aiding the enemy, it seems to say intentions don’t matter. If you do something that gives comfort to the enemy, you’ve violated the [law]. So any time we publish a piece of news in a bad light or a poll that says public is losing interest in the war in Afghanistan — I’m sure those stories all make for a lot of smiles at al-Qaeda, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that those stories are criminal.”
At the same time: What is not chilling about Manning’s treatment, aiding-the-enemy acquittal notwithstanding? Consider that he received 112 days’ credit against his eventual sentence for the severe conditions of his pre-trial confinement, which critics called torture. At certain points, for instance, Manning was stripped of his underwear and found himself limited to twenty minutes of daily exercise as opposed to the hour accorded to others. Then consider the raft of other charges that Manning fought.
The aiding-the-enemy charge may have constituted a reach by military prosecutors. What Manning got instead, however, was by no means modest. He faces a maximum sentence of more than 130 years in prison for his offenses. That plus the no-underwear thing should be plenty to deter future military personnel contemplating the disclosure of secrets in the public interest.