Army Private First Class Bradley Manning should be held accountable for his recklessness, but it was a stretch when prosecutors charged him with “aiding the enemy.” Although classified documents that Manning released to the world ended up in Osama bin Laden’s hideout, there is no evidence that he intended to help Al Qaeda. Tuesday, he was rightfully acquitted of that charge, which carried a potential life sentence.
Still, Manning was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a charge that was also a stretch. The act was designed to punish spies who pass secrets to foreign governments, not people who leak to the public.
Before Manning, only one other person appears to have been convicted under the espionage law for leaks to the press: Samuel L. Morison, a former intelligence analyst who went on to work for a British military magazine. Morison gave that publication classified images of Soviet ships — out of a patriotic desire, he claimed, to see the US military budget increased. Morison was sentenced to two years, raising concerns about the use of the Espionage Act against journalistic leaks.
Like Morison, Manning claimed that he released classified documents out of patriotism. He wanted Americans to understand the horrors of war. Some images he released, including a video of indiscriminate shooting from a helicopter, accomplished that goal. But he stole and made public hundreds of thousands of other documents, including cables describing individuals who were secretly cooperating with the United States, and put lives in danger in a way that differentiated him from a traditional whistleblower.
Even without the espionage charge, Manning will face a hefty prison term when he is sentenced by a military court. He pleaded guilty to enough lesser counts to put himself away for two decades. That, surely, is more than enough. Manning’s lack of restraint warrants punishment, but not the maximum of 136 years he faces now.