FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) — In a split decision, U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was acquitted Tuesday of aiding the enemy — the most serious charge he faced — but was convicted of espionage, theft and nearly every other count for giving secrets to WikiLeaks, a verdict that could see him spend the rest of his life in prison.
The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, deliberated over three days before delivering a decision that denied the government a precedent that freedom of press advocates had warned could have broad implications for leak cases and investigative journalism about national security issues.
From the courtroom to world capitals, people struggled to absorb the meaning of a ruling that cleared the soldier of a charge of aiding the enemy, which would have carried a potential life sentence, but convicted him of 20 of 22 counts that, together, could also mean life behind bars.
Manning faces up to 136 years in prison if given maximum penalties in a sentencing hearing that starts Wednesday. It is expected to last most of August.
The 25-year-old soldier stood quietly at attention in his dress uniform, flanked by his attorneys, as the verdict was delivered. He appeared not to react, though his attorney, David Coombs, smiled faintly when he heard "not guilty" on the aiding the enemy charge.
When the judge was done, Coombs put his hand on Manning's back and whispered something to him, bringing a slight smile to the soldier's face.
"We won the battle, now we need to go win the war," Coombs said later, outside the courtroom. "Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire."
Transparency advocates and legal experts had mixed opinions on the implications for the future of leak cases and investigative journalism in the Internet age.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said the verdict was a chilling warning to whistleblowers, "against whom the Obama administration has been waging an unprecedented offensive," and threatens the future of investigative journalism because intimidated sources might fall quiet.
However, another advocate of less government secrecy, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, questioned whether the implications will be so dire, given the extraordinary nature of the Manning case.
"This was a massive hemorrhage of government records, and it's not too surprising that it elicited a strong reaction from the government," Aftergood said.
"Most journalists are not in the business of publishing classified documents, they're in the business of reporting the news, which is not the same thing," he said. "This is not good news for journalism, but it's not the end of the world, either."
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist, commentator and former civil rights lawyer who first reported Edward Snowden's leaks of National Security Agency surveillance programs, said Manning's acquittal on the charge of aiding the enemy represented a "tiny sliver of justice."
But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose website exposed Manning's spilled U.S. secrets to the world, saw nothing to cheer in the mixed verdict.
"It is a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism," he told reporters at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, which is sheltering him. "This has never been a fair trial."
To prove aiding the enemy, prosecutors had to show Manning had "actual knowledge" the material he leaked would be seen by al-Qaida and that he had "general evil intent." They presented evidence the material fell into the hands of the terrorist group and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, but struggled to prove their assertion that Manning was an anarchist computer hacker and attention-seeking traitor.
Coombs said during trial that Manning had no way of knowing whether al-Qaida would access the secret-spilling website and a 2008 counterintelligence report showed the government itself did not know much about WikiLeaks at the time.
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