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Bradley Manning acquitted of most serious charge, convicted of others

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning faces up to 136 years in prison for violations of the Espionage Act in the WikiLeaks case, but is acquitted of aiding the enemy, which could have brought a life sentence.

July 30, 2013|By Richard A. Serrano
  • Army Pfc. Bradley Manning leaves the courthouse at Ft. Meade, Md., after the judge rendered her verdict. His sentencing hearing is expected to begin Wednesday.
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning leaves the courthouse at Ft. Meade, Md., after… (Patrick Semansky / Associated…)

FT. MEADE, Md. — Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was convicted Tuesday of violating the Espionage Act and faces up to 136 years in prison, but his acquittal on the even more serious charge of aiding the enemy was hailed as a victory for the press and the Internet against the government's crackdown on leaks of classified information.

Manning's leak of more than 700,000 State Department cables, terrorism detainee assessments, combat logs and videos was the largest breach of classified secrets in U.S. history. Among the information was a now-infamous 2007 video of an Apache combat helicopter attack in Iraq in which U.S. soldiers fired on civilians and killed 12, including two Reuters journalists.

Manning becomes one of only two people ever convicted under the Espionage Act for making classified data available to the public; the other, Samuel L. Morison, a government security analyst convicted in 1985, was pardoned by President Clinton on his final day in office.

"We won the battle, now we need to go win the war," said chief defense lawyer David Coombs, who was greeted by applause and thanks from Manning supporters when he left the courtroom. "Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire."

Under the aiding the enemy charge, Manning, 25, could have been sent to prison for life with no parole. The military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, heard the case without a jury and did not explain her verdicts. She appeared to have accepted defense arguments that Manning did not understand that releasing the material could allow Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organizations to use the information to harm the United States.

The government's theory — that even if Manning did not directly convey information to an enemy, he could be charged with that crime because information released to the public could be obtained by U.S. adversaries — had serious implications for whistle-blowers and those who provide information about classified programs to journalists.

Prosecutors "pushed a theory that making information available on the Internet — whether through WikiLeaks, in a personal blog posting, or on the website of the New York Times — can amount to 'aiding the enemy,'" said Widney Brown, senior director for international law and policy at Amnesty International. That, Brown said, "is ludicrous."

A conviction for aiding the enemy would have "severely crippled the operation of a free press," said Thomas Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University.

At Tuesday's hearing, Manning wore a blue dress uniform, wire rim glasses and a prison pallor after three years in pretrial confinement. He stood at ramrod attention and listened without emotion as the judge read the guilty and not-guilty verdicts on about two dozen charges.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin Wednesday, with each side expected to present about 10 witnesses. Manning's lawyers may put him on the stand.

If so, it would be the second time he has addressed the court. In February, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges of mishandling classified data. He said then that after collecting intelligence on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "I began to become depressed with the situation we had become mired in year after year."

After the sentencing, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of joint forces in the capital region, has the authority to toss out some or all of the guilty verdicts and, theoretically, release Manning. On Friday, Manning supporters rallied outside the gate of Ft. McNair in Washington, where Buchanan is stationed. They carried balloons and a 20-foot banner that read, "Maj. Gen. Buchanan, Do the Right Thing. Free Bradley Manning."

Manning was arrested in spring 2010 after the documents he took from government computer databases began appearing in sensational posts on the WikiLeaks website. For months he was held incommunicado, and his lawyers complained he was kept naked and tortured emotionally before his trial began in June.

Manning elected to allow Judge Lind to hear the case without a jury, probably worried that a panel of fellow soldiers weighing his fate would not be pleased that some of the material he gave to WikiLeaks was found in Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan after the Al Qaeda leader was killed by Navy SEALs in May 2011.

Military prosecutors presented evidence that Manning underwent extensive training about safeguarding classified data before becoming an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, and that he instructed other soldiers in security procedures.

"He was a traitor, a traitor who understood the value of compromised information in the hands of the enemy and took deliberate steps to ensure that they, along with the world, received it," Maj. Ashden Fein, the chief prosecutor, told the judge.

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