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

Bradley Manning, the Army private who provided reams of classified documents to the transparency organization WikiLeaks, was acquitted yesterday of aiding the enemy. Judge Denise Lind, a colonel, found him guilty on other counts, and Manning may spend as many as 136 years in prison, but the charge of aiding the enemy was the most serious one against him.

In charging Manning with aiding the enemy, government prosecutors argued that the former intelligence analyst’s decision to release diplomatic cables and battlefield reports amounted to the highest form of treason.

Lind did not buy that argument. But her verdict, which marked the first major espionage conviction during the Obama administration, is certain to set markers in the debate over government secrecy and whistleblower protections.

Manning’s attorney, David E. Coombs, said he was pleased by the verdict, but he signaled that the decisive moment will come during the sentencing phase of the court-martial, which opens Wednesday and could last several weeks.

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

The eight-week trial at Fort Meade offered a gripping account of Manning’s transformation after he was deployed to Iraq in 2009. Prosecutors asserted that, after being startled by what he came to view as egregious U.S. wartime misconduct, Manning became a mole for the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, using his access to classified information to collect more than 700,000 documents that ultimately became public. They ranged from sensitive detainee assessments to diplomatic dispatches, some decades old, that embarrassed their authors and angered their subjects.

Had Manning been convicted of aiding the enemy, he would have faced a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors were relying on a Civil War-era conviction to bolster their case. They argued that Manning should have known that terrorist organizations would have an interest in, and potentially benefit from, the disclosures.

Julie Tate and Ernesto Londoño

By rejecting the prosecution’s argument that Manning had aided the enemy, Lind declined to set a major precedent, but Erik Wemple writes that her decision is still a defeat for civil liberties:

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 the 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.

Erik Wemple

Manning’s conviction on charges of espionage could encourage prosecutors to bring charges against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, as a conspirator:

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. . . .

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.”

Billy Kenber

For past coverage of the verdict against Manning, continue reading here.