In the most important trial affecting whistleblower rights in years, Bradley Manning—the admitted source to the WikiLeaks disclosures—has been convicted on nineteen counts, including multiple Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act charges. He faces over 100 years in jail. While the most pernicious charge, “aiding the enemy,” was thankfully rejected by the military judge, this decision is a terrible blow to both investigative journalists and the sources they rely on to inform the public.
Manning is now the most high profile conviction under President Obama’s crackdown on leakers. As has been well documented, his administration has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act that all other administration’s combined, and has cast a distinct chill over investigative journalism.
The Espionage Act, a draconian statute written in 1917 as a way to punish non-violent opponents of World War I, has unfortunately been used in recent years to equate leakers and whistleblowers with spies and traitors. Facilitating that warped view in Manning's trial, the judge ruled early on that the defense was not allowed to put forth evidence of Manning’s sole intent to inform the American public, or evidence showing that none of the information materially harmed national security.
Today's ruling also opens up a new avenue for charging leakers and whistleblowers—section (a)(1) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which until now, has never led to a conviction. It’s was crafted in the 1990s by using some of the worst parts of the Espionage Act and adding the phrase “with a computer.”
This harsh conviction, coupled with a little noticed ruling unsealed this week in the Stephen Kim/Fox News leak case, will make it much easier for the government to charge leakers under the Espionage Act in the future. It's just the latest sign that the law has been morphed into a version of the UK’s Official Secrets Act—something that should be considered unconstitutional in the United States.
These charges were unnecessary from the start, given that Manning had already pleaded guilty to ten lesser counts that would land him up to twenty years in jail no matter the outcome of the trial. With this verdict, the government is not seeking justice, it's seeking to intimidate and scare any future whistleblowers from coming forward with potentially vital information that the public should know.
There is a sliver of hope for Manning – the sentencing hearing begins tomorrow and there are no minimum sentences for the crimes he has been convicted of. The defense will also now be able to admit evidence as to his intent and the lack of damage the disclosures cost.
Regardless, today is a dark day for press freedom in this country and we hope these unnecessary charges will be overturned on appeal.