US Shows No Mercy: Bradley Manning Convicted
A US military court acquitted Bradley Manning of the worst charge against him, but he isn't out of the woods yet.
Before reading out the verdict she held in her hands, Judge Denise Lind, an Army colonel, peered out at the court room once again, looking at the prosecutors, the defense and, of course, at Bradley Manning, the diminutive 25-year-old who sat next to his brawny lawyer David Coombs. It would take a while, Lind said, as she prepared to read out the 22 charges. She then adjusted her glasses and commenced.
Yet after only about five minutes, the military judge was done. Things began pretty well for WikiLeaks informant Manning as he listened to his conviction on Tuesday, but by the end it was agonizingly painful.
The first and most serious charge against Manning was that of aiding the enemy. In theory, the death penalty can be applied in such convictions, but the government had only demanded life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole. Just life imprisonment. Manning stood. The judge looked at him and read, "Not guilty." Manning made an effort not to show any emotion, just as he had done for the past eight weeks of his trial.
Then Lind proceeded, reading out one verdict after the other. "Guilty," she said. "Guilty, guilty, guilty." In the end, it was a word Manning heard on a total of 20 out of 22 charges. Guilty of espionage, guilty of theft, guilty of computer fraud. Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Responding to the conviction, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, "This is the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower. It is a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism. It is a short sighted judgment that cannot be tolerated and must be reversed. It can never be that conveying true information to the public is 'espionage'."
Manning's family also issued a statement. "While we are obviously disappointed in today's verdicts," they wrote. "We are happy that Judge Lind agreed with us that Brad never intended to help America's enemies in any way. Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform."
140 Years in Prison
Most of the offenses carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. For some of them he would face only two years. Taken together, though, he could face around 140 years in prison -- the maximum possible sentence. In the coming weeks, the exact sentence will be negotiated at the military court at the Fort Meade military base in Maryland. Witnesses will be called to testify once again. Manning's defense attorney appeared hopeful after the acquittal on the charge of aiding the enemy.
"We won the battle," Coombs said, "now we need to go win the war. Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire." It sounds like victory. But is it?
It's clear what messages the judge is seeking to send in this trial of the largest betrayal of secrets in American history.
The first is that no mercy will be shown for whistleblowers. The United States is pursuing and treating whistleblowers as traitors. The Manning ruling is intended to have a deterrent effect for others who might seek to follow in his footsteps.
The second is that Lind stopped short of creating a precedent for the erosion of press freedom in the US.
If the court had convicted Manning on charges of aiding the enemy, it would have equated publishing stories about the documents in the media with aiding the enemy. Prior to Manning's verdict, Daniel Ellsberg -- who once leaked the Pentagon Papers to prove the sheer hopelessness of the Vietnam War -- offered some insight. "The idea that you can execute someone for an offense that had no element of intent or even specified effect," he told the Christian Science Monitor, "or that you can face life in prison or death simply from informing an enemy or potential enemy in the process of informing fellow citizens for their benefit is potentially a lethal blow to the First Amendment or freedom of speech and the press."
Last Friday, Manning's defense attorney Coombs sought to portray the difference between leaking data to the public and the enemy in this way: If, for example, you leak a troop movement from point A to point B at a certain time, then the enemy can only profit from this information if it is received directly. If the information is passed on to the public, then that troop movement will most certainly not happen because the enemy will obviously have access to that information as well.
Crackdown on Whistleblowers
Still, the fact that Manning wasn't convicted of aiding the enemy in no way diminishes the massive pressure that US President Barack Obama has applied on the media and potential future whistleblowers. Recently, James Risen, an investigative reporter with the New York Times, was ordered by a federal court to testify against a confidential CIA source -- with the threat of imprisonment if he refused to do so. Risen said he would go to jail if necessary to protect his source. Presently, the US is prosecuting six different people on allegations that they betrayed government secrets -- more than under any previous president.
Nevertheless, there have been some significant shortcomings in Manning's defense. During the Manning trial, Coombs failed in his strategy of seeking to paint a portrait of the 25-year-old as a whistleblower who did so for moral reasons, as a "humanist." Coombs repeatedly depicted his client as "young, naïve, but good intentioned." What Manning had done, he said, "is not anti-patriotic. That is something that is not anti-American. That really is what America is about -- that we take everybody."
But the prosecutor, Major Ashden Fein sought to portray Manning as a traitor out of vanity, as a soldier for whom neither the pledge of allegiance or the flag meant anything. Manning was no whistleblower, he argued -- he instead repeatedly claimed that Manning was a hacker and a traitor.
Manning confessed early on, back in February, that he had leaked the documents to WikiLeaks. He admitted to 10 lesser charges, knowing he would likely be sentenced to around 20 years in prison. It was a futile move, though, and he could now face decades behind bars.
Far away in Moscow, Edward Snowden is likely following the headlines very closely.
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