Bradley Manning: not guilty of “aiding the enemy” but still a dangerous precedent.

Exactly one piece of good news came out of the verdict against Bradley Manning today. Judge Col. Denise Lind pronounced Bradley Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy. As this was the most serious charge which carried a life sentence without the right to parole (or, in fact, the death penalty but the US government refrained from seeking that), I suppose there were some initial sighs of relief, as “[t]o convict under this law without requiring at least an intent to communicate with an enemy would have severely chilling implications for free speech, particularly in the age of the Internet”.

The relief would not have lasted long. Greg Mitchell correctly points out that it was premature, considering that with “guilty” verdicts for many of the other charges (and what with everything else that is going on at the moment), the “crackdown on whistleblowers and transparency continues”.

And anyway, the good news pretty much ended with that one important “not guilty” verdict. There were many more “guilty” verdicts – 19 out of 22, altogether – including five theft and five espionage charges each. Manning now be faces up to 130 years in prison, depending on the outcome of the sentencing phase which is about to begin. As several witnesses will be called during this phase, it could last for another couple of days.

The whole case is of course outrageous and deeply disturbing. I have discussed this in some detail in my last post;  the “cruel and degrading” treatment Manning was subjected to during the three years he spent in jail prior to his trial should have meant that the case never made it to court. Rather, it should have been dismissed on grounds of unlawful actions by the government.

The fact that it did come to trial – and including charges of breaching the Espionage Act, no less – and the verdict have caused much concern amongst human rights groups and investigative journalists. The New York Times in an editorial on the verdict, correctly bemoans that “[l]urking just behind a military court’s conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning, on charges that included multiple violations of the Espionage Act, is a national-security apparatus that has metastasized into a vast and largely unchecked exercise of government secrecy, and the overzealous prosecution of those who breach it”.

Even though Manning was not found guilty of aiding the enemy, he was found guilty of several charges of violating the Espionage Act, essentially for leaking information to the press. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is right when he says that this potentially sets a very serious precedent for independent journalism and its sources. Because, what has become obvious is that the government sees “Manning’s actions espionage, not whistle-blowing”.

Last time I looked, the term espionage was defined twofold as

1. the systematic use of spies to obtain secret information, esp by governments to discover military or political secrets

2. the act or practice of spying

Correct me if I’m wrong but for me this means that to be charged with and found guilty of espionage, you would have to be a spy, i.e. working for a government or similar (hostile) force (Manning was accused of unintentionally helping Al Qaeda). Doesn’t it seem absurd to you that while Manning was absolved of aiding the enemy, he was still found guilty of espionage?

By contrast, a whistleblower is defined as someone who discloses “to the public or to those in authority, […] mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing.” Manning having disclosed to the public “grave abuses in the ‘war on terror’” strikes me more as a whistleblower than a spy. Then again, the Espionage Act “originally prohibited any attempt to interfere with military operations, to support U.S. enemies during wartime, to promote insubordination in the military, or to interfere with military recruitment” – which would be what the US government are basing their case on.

Interestingly, this would not apply to Edward Snowden, who did nothing if not leak “to the public […], [information] mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing” by the NSA and the US government. It is a strange thing, thus, that he should be prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act, even though he is, to all intends and purposes, the very definition of a whistleblower. And make no mistake; today’s verdict surely is indicative if what Edward Snowden can expect if he returns to the US to stand trial.

That in mind, I can only agree with the American Civil Liberties Union who “denounced the verdict [against Bradley Manning] as a government attempt ‘to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.’” After all, the US governments persecution of Edward Snowden is another such attempt at intimidation – which, tellingly, also includes the intimidation (by trade sanctions) of any nation that would dare so much as think of granting Snowden asylum. Reporters Without Borders agrees: “Edward Snowden would have every reason to fear persecution, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, if he were to return to the United States.”
Things don’t stop at intimidation either. Obviously, the incident with Evo Morales’ plane last month constituted a violation of sovereignty. In Manning’s case, pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge has been branded “a serious overreach of the law,” by Amnesty International, “not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to WikiLeaks.”

Absurdly, in a joint statement after the ruling, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee said that “justice has been served” because “Manning harmed […] national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes”. Am I the only one who thinks it ridiculous that Manning is being accused of violating the public’s trust for making information about wrongdoing on the part of the government available to – exactly! – the public? Add to that what has recently come to light about the extent of government spying (and in this case I believe the term is applied correctly) on (pretty much all) members of the public, then who is actually violating the public’s trust? Really, ladies and gentlemen of the House of Representatives, I am not sure you should be throwing stones in that particular glasshouse.

Today, the US government has demonstrated once again not only its inability to deal adequately with information about everything that is seriously going wrong on its watch (I stand by my suggestion that whistleblowers should all be honoured with medals and knighthoods, not prosecuted). It has also given us another example of its vendetta against whistleblowers. Despite wide-ranging public support (including from members of the European Parliament, former whistleblowers, investigative journalists, the Bradley Manning Support Network and WikiLeaks, to name but a few), after today “Private Manning still faces the equivalent of several life sentences on the espionage counts regarding disclosure of classified information.”

Clearly, the New York Times is right to ask “[t]he government [to] satisfy itself with a more moderate sentence and then do something about its addiction to secrecy.”

 

There are a couple of very useful sources for background information on the trial, the verdict and Bradley Manning’s leaks. Check them out.

The Washington Post’s overview of the verdict

IMPORTANTLY, a collection of information on what Bradley Manning revealed.

The “Collateral Murder” video that Bradley Manning leaked to WikiLeaks.

Reporters Without Borders on what the Manning verdict means for investigative journalism.

The Guardian has a trove of information on the issue, including the Wikileaks revelations.

The full letter of Members of the European Parliament, asking President Obama to free Bradley Manning.

A transcript of the ruling.

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