In acquitting Army Pfc. Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy, a military judge has displayed an admirable sense of proportion that was lacking in the prosecution’s case against the young soldier who provided a trove of classified documents to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. The government’s assertion that Manning was assisting Al Qaeda simply because he knew that terrorists might read the leaked documents on the Internet was a dangerously expansive legal theory, and if the judge had accepted it, Manning could have faced life in prison.
But while the judge, Col. Denise Lind, acquitted the 25-year-old Manning of the inflated charge of aiding the enemy, she convicted him of several other charges, including multiple violations of the Espionage Act, which the Obama administration is also using to prosecute leakers in civilian court. That law punishes the transmission of defense information to unauthorized persons if the possessor of the information has reason to believe that it would injure this country or aid a foreign nation. And before his court-martial, Manning had pleaded guilty to lesser charges of mishandling classified information that could subject him to 20 years in prison.
In deciding on a final sentence, the judge should consider Manning’s insistence that he didn’t intend to harm the U.S. and the fact that at least some of the information he disclosed — such as a 2007 video of an Apache helicopter attack that killed 12 civilians in Baghdad — qualified as whistle-blowing. (The same can’t be said of his dumping of 250,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, which Manning justified as a way to promote what he naively called “open diplomacy.”)
The judge also should take into account that for months after his arrest, Manning was mistreated, held in virtual solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at a Marine Corps brig and sometimes stripped of his clothes, supposedly to prevent him from hurting himself or others. Lind already has said she would shave 112 days from Manning’s sentence because his confinement had been “more rigorous than necessary,” but that dispensation would mean little in a sentence of several years or even decades. As we have observed before, Manning must face the consequences that await anyone who violates the law in a supposedly higher cause. But the case for leniency is compelling.
One might think the judge’s rejection of the aiding-the-enemy charge would temper the Obama administration’s unprecedented zeal for prosecuting disclosures of classified information. That seems unlikely. Whether the target is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, or Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, the State Department contractor suspected of leaking information about North Korea to Fox News, the administration seems determined to use criminal law to plug leaks even when they don’t result in provable harm to national security, an aggressive posture that may deter genuine whistle-blowers.