U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been acquitted of aiding the enemy for giving classified secrets to WikiLeaks. (Associated Press)

A military judge acquitted Pfc. Bradley Manning, who admitted to giving classified documents to the WikiLeaks group, of aiding the enemy today. The judge found him guilty of lesser offenses, however, and he could spend the rest of his natural life in prison:

The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, found Manning guilty of most of the more than 20 crimes he was charged with, including several counts of violating the Espionage Act. She also acquitted him of one count of violating the Espionage Act that stemmed from his leak of a video that depicted a fatal U.S. military airstrike in Farah, Afghanistan.

Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, hailed the verdict.

“We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” Coombs said, referring to the sentencing phase. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”

The eight-week trial offered a gripping account of Manning’s transformation from a shy soldier who deployed to Baghdad as an intelligence analyst in 2009. After being startled by what he came to see as egregious U.S. wartime conduct, he became a mole for the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which ultimately obtained more than 700,000 military and diplomatic documents from Manning. These included war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, cables between the State Department and U.S. embassies, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The government relied on a case from the Civil War to bring the charge of aiding the enemy. 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.

Had Manning been convicted of aiding the enemy, he would have faced a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. Civil libertarians feared that a conviction on that charge, which has not been used since the Civil War, would have sent a chilling message to would-be government whistle-blowers. . . .

Before Tuesday’s verdict, Manning had 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, outside Baltimore, will begin Wednesday. The prosecution is expected to press Lind to impose the maximum sentence. The government is expected to present in a session closed to the public the classified damage assessments conducted by government agencies after the disclosures by WikiLeaks.

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

Julie Tate and Ernesto Londoño

Manning told the judge he released the documents because he was concerned about U.S. military and diplomatic policy:

Manning said during a pre-trial hearing in February he leaked the material to expose the U.S military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life, and what he considered American diplomatic deceit. He said he chose information he believed would not the harm the United States and he wanted to start a debate on military and foreign policy. He did not testify at his court-martial.

Coombs portrayed Manning as a “young, naive but good-intentioned” soldier who was in emotional turmoil, partly because he was a gay service member at a time when homosexuals were barred from serving openly in the U.S. military.

He said Manning could have sold the information or given it directly to the enemy, but he gave it to WikiLeaks in an attempt to “spark reform” and provoke debate. Counterintelligence witnesses valued the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs at about $5.7 million.

Coombs said Manning had no way of knowing whether al-Qaida would access the secret-spilling Web site, and a 2008 counterintelligence report showed the government itself didn’t know much about the site.

Associated Press

The judge’s decision to convict Manning on charges of espionage could turn out to be an important one:

While “aiding the enemy” was the most serious charge Manning faced, his conviction on the other counts still carries a possible penalty of more than a century in prison, according to reports.

Today marks the first time a court has ruled on the Espionage Act during President Obama’s aggressive pursuit of administration leakers. As we explained last week, Manning’s conviction under the act sets an important precedent. Now that it’s been proven to work in trials, the act could become used more liberally by the White House.

It’s also important to point out that even though Manning might wind up in jail for over a century, that’s also a theoretical outcome. He may serve less jail time depending on how the sentencing goes.

Brian Fung

See a summary of the charges against Manning and how Lind ruled at left.

Wget is a free, open-source program so basic that it can be run from the Web or from a file that’s about half the size of an MP3 file. What it does is so simple that most Web users today wouldn’t even realize this could require a separate program: It downloads files. It doesn’t break into password-protected servers, secretly transmit data or steal the latest Kanye West album. The program’s name is a combination of “World Wide Web” and “get,” as in you use it to get files from the Internet. Its function is roughly equivalent to right-clicking something on your Web browser and then hitting “save to desktop.”

Investigators found that, when Manning downloaded vast numbers of U.S. diplomatic cables and other files from the computer network he regularly accessed for his Army intelligence job, he’d used wget to do it. This doesn’t mean he used wget to hack into the system – Manning already had access to the files. It means that he used this tool to download the files more efficiently. Illegally taking and distributing the files are covered under separate charges.

How does using wget qualify as computer fraud? U.S. prosecutors pointed out that wget was not on the list of “approved” programs for use in facility where Manning worked. They argued that, although Manning was allowed to access the files, using an unauthorized program to do it amounted to a digital “trespass” and thus computer fraud. They also used the fact that wget was not permitted on Manning’s computer as further evidence that using it amounted to illegal computer access.

Max Fisher

Find some responses to the verdict through social media here.