A military judge's refusal to drop the most serious charge against Manning could have broad implications for journalists.
A military judge declined Thursday to drop the charge against Private First Class Bradley Manning that he aided the enemy when he leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks three years ago. Manning has said that he gave the documents to the organization to spark a conversation about America’s actions abroad and that he did not intend for the information to benefit terrorist groups.
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, had argued that the charge, made under the 1917 Espionage Act, created a dangerous precedent for individuals who leak information to journalists and news organizations. He also argued that the government had failed to prove that Manning had “actual knowledge” that he was providing intelligence to al Qaeda.
The government’s argument has been that WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents online made the information available to terrorist groups, which allowed enemies to gain valuable information about United States operations. It’s an argument that could potentially criminalize any leak that led to a news story available on the Internet.
The Guardianreported Tuesday that Colonel Denise Lind, the judge presiding in the case, asked the government’s lawyer if the type of journalistic enterprise mattered when considering damage to U.S. interests. “Does it make any difference if it’s WikiLeaks or any other news organisation – the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal?” Lind asked prosecutor Captain Angel Overgaard. The prosecutor responded that “it would not potentially make a difference.”
U.S. lawyers also allege that Manning’s training as an intelligence analyst meant that he was more aware of the consequences of his actions than if he had held a different position, one with less access to sensitive information, within the military.
Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges against him in February, but not guilty to 12 other charges, including aiding the enemy, for which he faces the possibility of life in prison. The government has said it will seek a sentence of life in prison, not the death penalty, which is possible under such a charge.
The Obama administration has prosecuted a record number of people for leaking information to journalists, and has used the 1917 Espionage Act to charge leakers and whistleblowers more than all previous administrations combined. Edward Snowden has also been charged with aiding the enemy for leaking documents about National Security Agency surveillance programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Snowden is now seeking temporary asylum in Russia.
When Mannning leaked the information, which included classified diplomatic cables, military records, and Guantanamo detainee documents, it was the largest leak of its kind in United States history.