A military court Tuesday convicted Army Pfc. Bradley Manning of violating the Espionage Act for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, a verdict that legal analysts say likely will have a chilling effect on others considering revealing government secrets.
While Manning, 25, was acquitted of the most serious charge — aiding the enemy, which carried a penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole — he still faces up to 136 years in prison when he is sentenced at Fort George G. Meade, Md. The sentencing hearing, which starts Wednesday, is expected to last most of August.
The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, did not reveal her reasoning in her ruling, but David Schanzer, a former Justice Department official, said the verdict makes clear that the leakers’ intent does not matter in prosecuting them for revealing state secrets.
“If you receive a security clearance, you don’t get the right to decide when, or when it’s not, OK to leak information. The reasons that you leak are irrelevant,” said Mr. Schanzer, associate professor and director of the Triangle Center of Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University. “No individual employee, especially lower-level employees like Bradley Manning, has a really complete picture of what the national security interest is.”
The issue is a key element in the case of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who exposed the agency’s massive data-gathering operations last month and is seeking asylum in Russia.
Manning was found guilty of 19 felony counts, including five violations of the 1917 Espionage Act, each of which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Legal analysts predicted that a stiff sentence will send a strong message to those seeking to expose government wrongdoing and bolsters the Obama administration’s prosecution of those who leak secrets to news media.
“This charge [of violating the Espionage Act] has traditionally been used for spies and traitors, not for those who leak to the media with no intent to harm the U.S.,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “[This is] the first time that we have seen a conviction that carries this kind of potential for a heavy sentence.”
Ms. Goitein said this administration has brought more charges against leakers to news outlets than all previous administrations combined.
Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hailed Manning’s convictions.
“Justice has been served today. Pfc. Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes,” wrote Reps. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and committee chairman, and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security.”
Manning pleaded guilty in February to 10 of 22 charges for mishandling classified data and lesser charges that would have brought him 20 years in prison, but the government decided to pursue more serious charges.
Those who consider Manning a whistleblower expressed relief that he was found not guilty of aiding the enemy.
“It was wrong for the government to charge Mr. Manning with the offense of ‘aiding the enemy,” the National Whistleblower Center said in a statement. “Charging a whistleblower with the crime of ‘aiding the enemy,’ simply because the whistleblower provided information to the news media, was wrong and was designed to improperly scare other citizens into silence.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also chimed in: “Since Manning already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information — which carry significant punishment — it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”
Col. Lind deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before reaching her decision in a case that drew worldwide attention as supporters hailed Manning as a whistleblower. The U.S. government called him an anarchist computer hacker and attention-seeking traitor.
Manning stood at attention, flanked by his attorneys, as the judge read her verdicts. He appeared not to react, though his attorney David Coombs smiled faintly when he heard not guilty on aiding the enemy.
“We won the battle; now we need to go win the war,” Mr. Coombs said of the sentencing phase. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”
Manning leaked more than 700,000 classified documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in 2009 and 2010, including a video of the accidental killings of civilians, a Reuters photographer and his driver by a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007.
Among the reasons Manning gave for divulging the secrets was that the information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan upset and disturbed him.
Ms. Goitein said she does not consider Manning to be a whistleblower, but she said there was no evidence that he had any intent to harm the U.S., adding that the government’s burden to prove such intent is waning.
“That really is the import for future Espionage Act cases — continuing the trend of judges saying that a defendant’s motive does not matter in espionage cases,” she said.
“National security journalism relies on controlled, responsible leaks of information,” Ms. Goitein said. “Now, the only leaks of information are the authorized leaks at a high level, which are done to promote the administration’s interests, and are not prosecuted.”
Manning was not convicted of aiding the enemy because the prosecution, led by Army Maj. Ashden Fein, failed to prove that Manning knew the materials would reach al Qaeda, even though some of the leaked digital files were found in Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound when he was killed in 2011.
In addition to the espionage charges, Manning was found guilty of five counts of federal records theft, three counts of adding authorized software to a secure computer network and other military infractions related to his misuse of security measures.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.