Millennium Post

Enemy of the state? Bradley Manning trial divides America

America is split right down the middle over the trial of Private Bradley Manning, who faces charges graver than any other in the history of the United States. Although Manning has been exonerated of waging war against the state and helping the enemy, his trial as America’s most controversial convict began on Wednesday, and he was found guilty of no less than 20 counts relating to the transmission of state secrets to WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, America waits with baited breath as the profound consequences of what amounts to a major escalation in the US government’s war on whistleblowers are beginning to sink in, with human and civil rights group across the world condemning the harshness of the sentence that Manning could possibly face, amounting to at least 100 years.

However, Tuesday’s verdict, which cleared Manning of aiding the enemy, was the first time under the Obama administration that any leaker of official secrets has been convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act – a criminal statute designed to ensnare actual spies and traitors working with foreign governments. The only other time in US history that an official has been found guilty at trial under the Act for passing classified information to the press involved a naval intelligence expert, Samuel Morison, in 1985.

The Espionage Act offences – which cover the leaking of the Iraq and Afghan war logs, more than 700 detainee files from Guantánamo Bay, documents relating to a US airstrike that killed civilians in Farah Province, Afghanistan, and other records – add up to a possible maximum 60-year sentence out of the total of 136 years in military custody which Manning faces. The court in Fort Meade, Maryland, where Manning’s court-martial has conducted for nearly two years, will now begin hearings over his sentencing, with both prosecution and defence teams calling a slew of new witnesses.

The judge presiding over the court-martial, Colonel Denise Lind, is expected to reach a decision on Manning’s sentence over the next three weeks. Given the sheer number of charges to which the soldier has been found guilty, and the cumulative sentence they carry, the 25-year-old army private is now facing the real prospect of spending a large portion of his adult life in military custody.

A sentence that could stretch into decades would set a precedent of a kind all its own: it would be signify a huge intensification of the punishment for those who disclose US state secrets. That in turn could have implications for others facing such charges, including the NSA source Edward Snowden.

Under the Obama administration, seven Espionage Act prosecutions have been unleashed – more than all those initiated by previous presidents combined. Of those that have been completed, prosecutions have either failed – as in the case of Thomas Drake, a former NSA official against whom all 10 charges were dropped – or led to a prison term for non-Espionage Act charges, as in the case of John Kiriakou, who is serving a 30-month sentence for disclosing classified information about a fellow CIA officer.

‘The Manning verdict takes us to a whole other level,’ said Liza Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security programme. ‘The government has done a poor job in thinking through the potential effects of this prosecution.’
Though Manning was found not guilty of the most serious charge, ‘aiding the enemy’, Goitein suggested that multiple convictions under the Espionage Act are certain to have a chilling effect across public information.
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