US & Canada

Viewpoints: The Bradley Manning verdict

Bradley Manning

US Army Private Bradley Manning has been found guilty of espionage. Experts weigh in on the verdict.

Manning, 25, admitted that he leaked documents to the anti-secrecy organisation Wikileaks. He has been found guilty of espionage. He now faces a prison sentence of up to 136 years.

Experts discuss the significance of the verdict - for Manning, journalists and others.

David Rieff, author, editor, Crimes of War 2.0: What the Public Should Know

The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

The US government's fury at the release of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables and other materials cannot be overstated.

The government has been unable to get its hands on Wikileaks' founder, Julian Assange, who is clearly right not to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Therefore Manning would have to do.

Of course the most important single piece of classified data Manning released was a cockpit video of two US airstrikes, one in Baghdad in 2007 and the other in Afghanistan in 2009.

The footage seemed to show soldiers in flagrant violation of the laws of armed conflict.

Unlike Manning, members of the aircrew were never charged. Most US service personnel convicted of war crimes have received sentences far lighter than Manning's.

There is no doubt Manning committed criminal offences.

Image caption David Coombs, the lawyer for Pfc Manning, portrayed him as a naive soldier

But the verdict is emblematic of Barack Obama, the president who has succeeded at what Bill Clinton failed do: make the Democratic Party the standard bearer of the national security state.

In this way, the crime of revealing possible war crimes in defiance of official secrecy is deemed by the government to be espionage, punishable by up to 130 years in prison, and thus infinitely worse than committing them.

PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration

Many people view Manning as a whistleblower for revealing inside information about the unpopular war in Iraq and extensive American military, diplomatic and intelligence activity around the world.

His mistreatment in pre-trial confinement - a United Nations investigation called it degrading - undermined the credibility of his prosecution. The judge agreed it was excessive and will reduce his sentence slightly as a result.

The judge's ruling avoids the establishment of a precedent that could have applied to ongoing leak cases, including the Edward Snowden saga.

The gist of the prosecution's argument in the Manning case is that in today's interconnected world, any leak of classified information will end up on the Internet and will be available to America's enemies.

Image caption Armed men watched over the military trial of Bradley Manning

Such a finding could have had a chilling effect on the ability of journalists to report on the activities of government and the willingness of officials to be candid in describing the complex decisions and tradeoffs that governments confront every day.

The end of the Manning case coincides with the ongoing Snowden saga. They both maintain they sought to start a debate.

They succeeded but damaged the national interest in the process. Finding the right balance among security, secrecy, transparency and privacy remains a work in progress.

Steve Vladeck, professor, American University Washington College of Law

Lawyers say that when neither side is happy, the judge knows that she is right. That seems to be the takeaway from today's verdict.

Legally, it's difficult to quibble with the Manning verdict.

It's pretty clear that Manning violated America's Espionage Act, a 96-year-old statute that notoriously does not require those who wrongfully disclose classified information to actually intend harm.

It's equally settled, as I have written in an article, that the First Amendment does not provide a shield to individuals like Manning who are only able to access the classified information that they wrongfully disclosed by virtue of their employment.

And it seems fairly obvious that prosecutors never met their burden on the more serious charge that Manning intended to "aid the enemy".

In fact, the important lesson from Manning's court-martial is different.

Whether or not one sympathises with Bradley Manning, his case presented a chance for a public referendum on the epidemic of over-classification that pervades the US government.

Image caption President Obama has troed to balance government secrecy and transparency

A substantial percentage of the tens of thousands of "classified" documents that Manning disclosed should never have been classified in the first place.

This underscores the need for reassessment of a regime in which every incentive runs toward classification, rather than transparency.

Nathan Sales, a George Mason University professor, served in the department of homeland security under President George Bush

For all the media fanfare, Manning's conviction is a fairly routine application of well-settled legal principles.

Unlike the UK, the US has no Official Secrets Act, whose goal is to prevent leaks of sensitive data.

The analogous US law, the Espionage Act of 1917, generally makes it a crime to reveal defence information to "any person not entitled to receive it".

This statute applies when spies sell secrets to foreign governments. Courts uniformly have held that it also applies when officials leak secrets to the media.

This is so because, as a leading case put it, "the danger to the United States is just as great when [classified] information is released to the press as when it is released to an agent of a foreign government."

Leaks can compromise vital intelligence sources and methods. And revealing the names of undercover assets - as Wikileaks has done - can cause them to be killed.

Manning downloaded more than 700,000 diplomatic cables and battlefield reports and watched while the world - including al-Qaeda members - pored over the documents.

Image caption Bradley Manning faces decades in prison for his crimes

The judge rejected the most serious charge against Manning, that of aiding the enemy (quite plausibly, as a conviction would have turned essentially all leaks into something like treason).

But she had little difficulty finding him guilty of most of the other crimes.

On the law and on the facts, it wasn't a hard case.