FORT MEADE, Md. — A military judge found Private First Class Bradley Manning not guilty Tuesday of “aiding the enemy” for his release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks for publication on the Internet, rejecting the government’s unprecedented effort to bring such a charge in a leak case.
But the judge in the court-martial, Colonel Denise R. Lind, convicted Manning of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and most of the other charges he faced. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 136 years in prison, although legal experts said the term was likely to be much shorter.
While advocates of open government celebrated his acquittal on the most serious charge, the case appears destined to stand as a warning to any government employee who is tempted to make public vast numbers of secret documents. Manning’s actions lifted a veil on US military and diplomatic activities around the world and engendered a broad debate over what information should become public, how the government treats leakers, and what happens to those who see themselves as whistle-blowers.
“We always hate to see a government employee who was trying to publicize wrongdoing convicted of a crime, but this case was unusual from the start because of the scope of his release,” said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, adding, “Whistle-blowers always know they are taking risks, and the more they reveal the bigger the threat is against them.”
Lind said she would issue findings later that would explain her ruling on each of the charges. But she appeared to reject the government’s theory that an employee who gives information about national security matters to an organization that publishes it online for the world to see is guilty of aiding the enemy.
The premise of that theory is that the world includes not just ordinary people who might engage in socially valuable debate but also enemies like Al Qaeda. Critics have said it is not clear how giving information to WikiLeaks is different for legal purposes from giving it to traditional news organizations that publish online.
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who testified in Manning’s defense, praised the judge for making an “extremely important decision” that he portrayed as denying “the prosecution’s effort to launch the most dangerous assault on investigative journalism and the free press in the area of national security that we have seen in decades.”
But, he said, the decades of imprisonment that Manning could face “is still too high a price for any democracy to demand of its whistle-blowers.”
The sentencing phase will begin Wednesday, with more than 20 witnesses scheduled to appear for the prosecution and the defense. It could last for weeks; there are no sentencing guidelines or minimum sentences in the military justice system. Manning’s appeals could go on for years, legal experts said.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School, said Manning would not be sentenced to anywhere near the 136-year maximum because Lind was likely to collapse some charges so he did not “get punished twice for the same underlying conduct.”
The case has arisen amid a crackdown by the Obama administration on leaks and a debate about government secrecy. Manning is one of seven people to be charged in connection with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration; during all previous administrations, there were three.
The Justice Department recently won an appeals court ruling forcing James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times and an author, to testify in the criminal trial of a former intelligence official accused of being his source. And it has used aggressive tactics in secretly subpoenaing communications records of reporters for Fox News and the Associated Press.
Most reporters watched the proceedings from a closed-circuit feed in a filing center. One who was inside the small courtroom said Manning, 25, appeared relaxed when he entered the room. But as the hour drew near he grew more stoic, and he showed no emotion as he stood while Lind marched through the litany of charges.
The “aiding the enemy” charge was the first in the list, and she said “not guilty.” But she quickly moved into a long list of guilty findings for the bulk of the remaining charges, including six counts of violating the Espionage Act, five of stealing government property, and one violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Each carries up to a 10-year sentence.
Lind accepted Manning’s guilty pleas on two lesser counts, one of which involved leaking a video of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad. She found him not guilty of leaking in 2009 a video of an airstrike in Afghanistan; he had admitted leaking it but said he did so later than the time in the charge.
Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, called Manning’s many other convictions “a weighty verdict that the prosecution would count as a win,” but he argued that the “larger significance of the case” for open government might be limited, since most leakers do not disclose entire databases.
Months before the trial, Manning confessed to being WikiLeaks’ source for videos of airstrikes in which civilians were killed; incident reports from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; dossiers on detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and about 250,000 diplomatic cables.
Manning also pleaded guilty to a lesser version of the charges against him, although that was not part of any bargain with prosecutors. The move was unusual, and it appeared aimed at trying to persuade the judge to view Manning as having taken responsibility for his actions, while recasting the trial as a test of whether the government had brought excessive charges in the case.
Hours before the verdict, about two dozen supporters of Manning gathered at the main gate to Fort Meade displaying signs with messages like “whistle-blowers keep us honest.” After the verdict, his supporters announced a protest rally Tuesday in front of the White House.
But Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, praised the verdict.
“Justice has been served today,” they said in a statement. “Pfc. Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes.”