Bradley Manning guilty on multiple counts of violating Espionage Act -- but not of aiding the enemy

Fox News says he’s guilty of at least 15 lesser counts as I write this, but the exact number is unclear. Per the AP, most of the lesser offenses carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison so he’s likely going away for a long time. Aiding the enemy was the spotlight charge, though, because of the novel legal question it presented: Can you aid the enemy by publishing sensitive info for all the world to see rather than handing it to them directly?

Legal experts said an aiding-the-enemy conviction could set a precedent because Manning did not directly give the classified material to al Qaeda, but to the Wikileaks website, which then published many of them.

“Most of the aiding-the-enemy charges historically have had to do with POWs who gave information to the Japanese during World War II, or to Chinese communists during Korea, or during the Vietnam War,” Duke law school professor and former Air Force judge advocate Scott Silliman told The Associated Press.

Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. David J.R. Frakt, a visiting professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, said a conviction on the most serious charge, if upheld on appeal, “would essentially create a new way of aiding the enemy in a very indirect fashion, even an unintended fashion.”…

Some of the classified documents leaked by Manning ended up in the hands of Osama bin Laden and were recovered in the raid on his compound by U.S. Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Evidently the judge decided that yes, intent is an element of aiding the enemy, and no, the prosecution didn’t prove that Manning intended to do so in leaking info. Had she found that intent is irrelevant, presumably any leak, for whatever purpose, could be punishable with death if it could be shown that the enemy benefited from it in some way. (The prosecution sought life in prison, not death, for Manning.) The judge asked prosecutors during the trial whether they would have sought the same charges if he had leaked to the Times rather than to Wikileaks; they said yes, which may have been the honest answer but probably doomed their case. A court’s not going to declare lightly that servicemen should risk capital punishment if/when they whisper something to a reporter. Especially in this case: Why set a precedent like that when you can give Manning a de facto life sentence, or something approaching that, by convicting him on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act instead?

Oddly enough, I think both Obama and Edward Snowden will be happy with the verdict on aiding the enemy. If the judge had ruled the other way, it would have thrown a spotlight on O’s heavy-handedness in sniffing out and punishing leakers. Better to stick with the lesser charges. As for Snowden, although he’d face a civilian court rather than a military tribunal, he surely doesn’t want any precedents being set that mass leaks that benefit the enemy, however unintentionally, are grounds for the stiffest possible sentences. Stand by for updates.

Update: It was Manning’s example, notes the Atlantic, that led Snowden to go the route he went:

Snowden’s leaks, as he himself noted, were more discriminate than Manning’s. While Manning quickly gave up on involving traditional media entities, Snowden was patient, waiting months for The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald to respond favorably. Manning’s involvement of WikiLeaks necessitated arguments about the group’s journalistic value; Snowden would face no such critique. Most significantly, Snowden saw the treatment and arrest of Manning and learned two things. First, that avoiding capture made sense and, second, that Manning’s treatment could be used as a political point. Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarkable letter to Russia last week, articulating that Snowden would not be tortured, was almost entirely the result of Snowden and his advocates using Manning as an example.

Update: CNN has a nice backgrounder on how Manning linked up with Wikileaks and how he was found out. Assange spoke to CNN yesterday about the case and was, as you might imagine, very Assange-ish indeed:

Update: He’s looking at 128 years behind bars.

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