WASHINGTON — A military judge on Tuesday acquitted Army Pfc. Bradley Manning of the most serious charge against him but found the former intelligence analyst and self-styled whistleblower guilty of various crimes involving purloined documents turned over to the WikiLeaks website.
In the most highly scrutinized court-martial in years, Army Col. Denise Lind acquitted Manning on a charge of aiding the enemy. A conviction could have sent the 25-year-old Manning to prison for life without possibility of parole.
But following a nearly two-month trial held at Fort Meade, Md., outside of Washington, Lind found Manning guilty of 20 other counts, including espionage violations, related to the theft and distribution of some 700,000 digital government documents. Manning provided the documentary treasure trove to WikiLeaks, which publishes material from U.S. and foreign corporations and governments.
Lind will sentence Manning after another extended hearing that starts Wednesday and will include additional testimony, some of it heard in closed session because of its sensitive nature. In theory, Manning still could face a sentence of upward of 136 years.
The split verdict drew a mixed response from Manning’s supporters and sympathizers.
“While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement, “the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.”
Manning’s defense attorney, David Coombs, added outside of the courtroom Tuesday afternoon that “today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.” Bradley Manning Support Network spokesman Nathan Fuller said he was both relieved by the aiding-the-enemy acquittal and “totally outraged” by the Espionage Act convictions.
Prosecutors had summoned more than 80 witnesses as they cast Manning as a “traitor” and a “calculating and self-interested” man who betrayed his country during a deployment to Iraq that began in October 2009. While working at Forward Operating Base Hammer east of Baghdad, Manning copied myriad files from military computer networks and provided them to WikiLeaks.
“His mission, as an all-intelligence analyst, was a special trust,” Army Maj. Ashden Fein said during his closing argument last week. “But within weeks of arriving at Iraq, he abused and destroyed this trust with the wholesale, indiscriminate compromise of hundreds of thousands of classified documents.”
Manning had admitted conveying the documents to WikiLeaks with the help of his personal Apple Macintosh laptop computer, and he already had agreed to plead guilty to some of the charges.
“He was hoping that, if people knew the true casualty figures in Iraq, that people would be alarmed by that,” Coombs, the defense attorney, said during his closing argument Friday. “He was hoping that, if people read the diplomatic cables, they would be alarmed by what we are saying about other countries, how we are not always doing the right thing.”
An Oklahoma native, Manning had enlisted in the Army in 2008, gained assignment with a top-secret clearance to the New York-based 10th Mountain Division, and then was arrested in May 2010. His subsequent detention under Spartan conditions at a Marine Corps brig contributed to the sympathy he attracted from some political quarters.
Lind already has indicated she will credit Manning for having served an additional 112 days because of his severe treatment in a windowless cell at the brig, where authorities had placed him on a suicide watch. He also will be credited for the time he has been in custody awaiting trial.
From the start, Manning’s supporters characterized him as an idealist who swiped government documents for idealistic reasons. The most eye-catching material included an encrypted video showing an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq in 2007 that killed 11 people, including two news organization employees.
“You have to look at this through the eyes of a young man who cares about human life,” Coombs said.
A complete but informal transcript of Manning’s court-martial has been prepared daily by a stenographer funded by donors coordinated by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The crowd-sourced transcript, in turn, has been only one of many unusual aspects of the trial that began June 3 amid the highly secure confines of Fort Meade, home to the secretive National Security Agency.
In the trial’s final days, Lind banned from the courtroom a sketch artist and vocal Manning supporter who had allegedly made a threatening comment. Journalists covering the trial from a remote media center reported last week intense scrutiny from armed military police officers. The few reporters allowed in the courtroom were banned from tweeting.
Outside the courtroom, Manning’s trial attracted considerable attention. His supporters rallied in San Francisco on Tuesday in conjunction with the announcement of the verdict, while 17 members of the European Parliament wrote President Barack Obama this week urging an end to what they termed the “persecution” of Manning. Other supporters gathered outside the Fort Meade gates Tuesday.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in a statement, called Manning a “quintessential whistleblower” whose disclosures “exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions and induced democratic reform.”
The charges Manning was convicted on included specific instances of theft of government property, misuse of computers and failure to obey orders concerning classified information. He previously pleaded guilty to a few of the charges.
The most incendiary charge was that Manning aided an enemy of the United States by knowingly giving intelligence through indirect means to al Qaida. Prosecutors argued that Manning knew al Qaida’s leaders perused WikiLeaks for information about the U.S. military; the aiding-the-enemy charge carried a potential death penalty, though prosecutors ruled that out early. The charge also incited the greatest controversy, with media analysts and legal scholars warning a conviction could threaten mainstream media organizations that rely on leaks.
Manning opted to have his case decided by the judge alone, rather than by a military panel.
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