FORT MEADE, Md. — A military judge Tuesday acquitted Pfc. Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy — the most serious charge the Army intelligence analyst faced for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military reports and diplomatic cables.
Manning was convicted on all but one of the lesser charges considered by the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, in connection with the website WikiLeaks’s receipt of the largest breach of classified material in U.S. history.
The suspense at Tuesday’s five-minute-long court martial session was limited because Manning previously pled guilty to at least portions of 10 of the 22 counts he faced. Also restraining the drama was the absence of a military jury, which the defendant waived.
Lind made no comments and displayed no emotion as she read her verdicts, which followed almost three months of witnesses and evidence which the judge heard as the sole fact-finder in the case.
After warning spectators in the packed courtroom to avoid any outbursts, Lind recited a list of the charges, adding her “not guilty” or — more often — “guilty” to each. She also accepted and described changes in some of the charges that the defense offered with Manning’s guilty pleas.
The aiding-the-enemy charge could have resulted in a sentence of up to life in prison or even to the death penalty, but the military did not seek capital punishment in Manning’s case.
If convicted on all charges but aiding the enemy, Manning faced a potential sentence to well over 100 years in prison. The charges the Army intelligence analyst pled guilty to carry a potential sentence of about 20 years.
Manning did not dispute the fact that he sent WikiLeaks most of the material that led to the charges against him. However, his defense argued that some of the counts were legally flawed.
Prosecutors contend that Manning was guilty of aiding the enemy because knew what he sent to WikiLeaks would wind up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
However, Manning’s defense and First Amendment advocates expressed concern about the aiding-the-enemy charge, saying it could convert almost any leak of classified information to the media into an aiding-the-enemy case since terrorist groups have access to most media reports and websites via the Internet.
The Army intelligence analyst was arrested in May 2010 at a forward operating base in Iraq where he studied threats in a section of Baghdad. He’s been in custody since.
Lind ordered the sentencing phase of Manning’s court martial to begin at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses demonstrating the harm caused by Manning’s disclosures, while the defense will seek to undercut that evidence and argue for leniency.
All convictions and any sentence ultimately handed down in the case are subject to review of the military officer who convened the court martial, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan of the Army’s Military District of Washington. In addition, the case is likely to be reviewed by military appeals courts.
Lind ruled in January that Manning is entitled to a sentencing credit of nearly four months as a result of what she determined was unnecessarily harsh treatment the intelligence analysts received during his almost nine-month stay at a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va.
Manning’s case is one of an unprecedented flurry of leak-related criminal prosecutions brought under the Obama administration. A total of seven such cases have been brought in the past four and a half years, more than double the number of such cases in all prior administrations combined.
The administration expressed no regret about its handling of the recent wave of cases until earlier this year, when extensive attention to the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records and a search warrant for a Fox reporter’s emails in a leak investigation led to a review of longstanding guidelines for such probes.
After an internal review, Attorney General Eric Holder changed DOJ policies earlier this month to make it more difficult to access journalists’ work materials in instances where they are not the target of an investigation.
The case against Manning was prosecuted in the military justice system, which is separate from the civilian courts. But ivilian federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va. have been conducting a grand jury investigation of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
It’s unclear what how prosecutors might seek to build a case against Assange, who has asserted that WikiLeaks is a news organization that acts in ways similar to those in which more conventional journalists gather news. Many lawmakers have called for Assange to be prosecuted for espionage or treason.
However, following the outcry over the AP and Fox News investigations, President Barack Obama declared: “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”