FT. MEADE, Md. — Although a military judge found Army Pfc. Bradley Manning not guilty Tuesday of aiding the enemy in giving hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, his conviction on separate violations of the Espionage Act could keep him in prison for decades and likely will invigorate the Obama administration's crackdown on unauthorized government leaks.
The aiding the enemy charge was the most serious one he faced because it could have meant a sentence of life in prison with no parole. But the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, sided with defense attorneys who argued strenuously that Manning never understood the true danger of leaking the material about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and how Al Qaeda and other foreign terror organizations would be able to use it to target the U.S.
The outcome of the sentencing phase, which begins Wednesday, will be crucial for Manning and, more broadly, other future government leakers.
"This is a historic verdict," said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Manning is one of very few people ever charged under the Espionage Act for leaks to the media. The only other person who was convicted was pardoned after trial.
"Despite the lack of any evidence that he intended any harm to the United States, Manning faces decades in prison. That's a very scary precedent."
A conviction on the aiding the enemy charge would have had serious implications for journalists and whistle-blowers in the time of the Internet.
But the conviction on five espionage charges sharply raises the ante for the 25-year-old former Army intelligence analyst in Iraq as he prepares for the sentencing phase to determine exactly how long he will remain in prison.
Manning had been vilified for more than three years as a traitor to his country but championed by others as a hero whistle-blower who released proof of government misconduct in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
He was already facing up to 20 years in prison after earlier pleading guilty to 10 lesser charges of mishandling classified data for giving more than 700,000 classified documents to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. The maximum sentence he could serve after Tuesday's convictions is 136 years.
In his blue dress uniform and wire rim glasses, and a prison pallor after already spending three years in confinement, Manning sat glancing left and right at his attorneys before the judge entered the courtroom a minute before 1 p.m. EDT. Then he stood at ramrod attention and listened without emotion as she loudly but quickly read through guilty and not guilty verdicts in some two dozen separate charges.