5 smart reactions to the Bradley Manning verdict

The polarizing secret-spiller faces up to 136 years in prison after being found guilty of 20 crimes. What does it mean for transparency, Obama, and journalism?

Bradley Manning
(Image credit: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

This week, a military judge found Pfc. Bradley Manning guilty of 20 crimes, including several violations of the Espionage Act, for his role in leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning was acquitted on the most serious charge, aiding the enemy, which means he will avoid a sentence of life in prison without parole. He could still, however, face up to 136 years in prison.

The case has sharply divided the country. Some people argue that Manning endangered lives by leaking classified information about the U.S. military during wartime. His proponents insist that Manning performed a valuable public service by shedding light on the government's secret actions, likening him to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war.

Here are some of the smartest takes, from both sides, on the wider implications of the Manning verdict.

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Manning's acquittal on aiding the enemy charges was a small victory for freedom of the press, argues The New Yorker's Amy Davidson:

The charge was always a stretch; the best precedent the government could come up with was a hundred and fifty years old, a case that arose in the context of the Union occupation of the Confederate-leaning city of Alexandria. As I wrote earlier, the dubious legal logic behind the charge was that giving information to a non-enemy reporter that an undesirable person might eventually read, and be glad to see, amounted to being in league with the enemy — something that could apply to the work of any number of investigative reporters. (The prosecution acknowledged that its arguments applied as much to the Times as to WikiLeaks.) There are necessary secrets; it is always the case, in a functioning democracy, that the government also tries to declare unnecessary ones, out of embarrassment or expediency, and that the press tries to keep it from doing so. The Obama Administration has been disrupting that balance with a series of leak investigations. The acquittal was a small push back. [The New Yorker]

But the case still has hugely negative implications for journalism and WikiLeaks, writes The Guardian's Dan Gilmor:

By finding Manning guilty of five counts of espionage, the judge endorsed the government's other radical theories, and left the journalism organization that initially passed along the leaks to the public, WikiLeaks, no less vulnerable than it had been before the case started. Anyone who thinks Julian Assange isn't still a target of the U.S. government hasn't been paying attention; if the U.S. can pry him loose from Ecuador's embassy in London and extradite him, you can be certain that he'll face charges, too, and the Manning verdict will be vital to that case … The overwhelmingly torpid coverage of this trial by traditional media has been yet another scandal for the legacy press, which still can't seem to wrap its collective brain around the importance of the case, and especially its wider context. National security journalist Jeremy Scahill summed it up after the verdict when he told Democracy Now: "We're in a moment when journalism is being criminalized." [The Guardian]

The verdict is bad news for Edward Snowden, writes Foreign Policy's Elias Groll, and makes his decision to seek asylum abroad look "all the more prescient":

In explaining his decision to flee the United States, Snowden has explained that the treatment of Manning, who has been held in solitary confinement and, on several occasions, stripped of his clothing, served as an example of the treatment he was likely to face for leaking sensitive National Security Agency documents. Now Snowden has seen Manning not only roughed up by his military captors but also convicted under the full weight of espionage charges … Like Manning, Snowden argues that his decision to put classified documents in the public domain was done out of a desire to expose wrongdoing at the highest level of the government. But as Tuesday's verdict in the Manning trial illustrates, that argument is no defense in the face of espionage charges, which the Obama administration has relied on heavily in its efforts to crack down on national security leaks. For the administration's critics, the idea that providing information to journalists amounts to espionage is ludicrous on its face. But as the Manning verdict shows, it's a line of reasoning that holds up well in a court room. [Foreign Policy]

In the end, the presiding judge, Colonel Denise Lind, made the right call, says Paul M. Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek:

The Manning verdict bears the strong imprint of common sense. Lind rejected the government's contention that, by dint of his training in intelligence, Manning knew his disclosures of documents and videos related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would likely come to the attention of al Qaeda. On the other hand, Lind found that Manning should have known that his actions could harm the U.S., even if that was not his goal … The judge intended to deter future Bradley Mannings from breaking the law and taking it upon themselves to decide which military secrets deserve exposure. At the same time, Lind made an implicit distinction between a leaker and a direct instrument of the nation's enemies. In so doing, she ensured that Manning's admitted misconduct will be punished, without making him into more of the martyr his supporters see him as. [Bloomberg Businessweek]

But the Obama administration's unprecedented use of the Espionage Act remains hugely problematic, writes the editorial board of The New York Times:

There is no question that Private Manning broke laws. In February he pleaded guilty to 10 of the less serious charges against him, which exposed him to up to 20 years in prison. But prosecutors continued to press the more serious charges, which included violations of the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that has become the Obama administration's hobbyhorse to go after government workers whose actions look nothing like spying. Under President Obama, the government has brought espionage charges more than twice as often under that particular law as all previous administrations combined ... Americans accept that material must be classified in the interest of national security. But that acceptance is severely tested when the government classifies more than 92 million documents in a year. [The New York Times]

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Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.