FORT MEADE, Md. — A military judge on Tuesday found U.S. soldier Bradley Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge he faced for handing over documents to WikiLeaks, but he still likely faces a long jail term after being found guilty of 19 other counts.
Col. Denise Lind ruled the 25-year-old Army private first class was guilty of five espionage charges, among many others, for the largest unauthorized release of classified U.S. data in the nation’s history.
The trove of documents, including battlefield videos and diplomatic cables, was a huge boost to the profile of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website and its founder, Julian Assange. Tuesday’s verdict could be a blow to his efforts to encourage people with access to secret information to release it publicly.
Supporters of Manning were heartened by the not-guilty ruling on the most serious charge, though WikiLeaks said the conviction represented “a very serious new precedent.”
Manning, who was working as a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad when he was arrested three years ago, could face up to 136 years in military prison. Lind will take up the question of his sentence on Wednesday.
The U.S. government was pushing for a life sentence without parole, which would have come if Manning had been convicted of aiding the enemy by leaking information that included battlefield reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It viewed the action as a serious breach of national security, while anti-secrecy activists praised it as shining a light on shadowy U.S. operations abroad.
“The verdict is certainly a chilling one for investigative journalism, for people who might come into information that they believe should be part of the public discourse,” said Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International. “The message is that the government will go after you.”
Manning’s case is one of two prominent ones involving high-profile leaks, illustrating the limits of secrecy in the Internet age. Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has been holed up in the transit area of a Moscow airport for more than a month despite U.S. calls for Russian authorities to turn him over.
Army prosecutors contended during Manning’s court-martial that U.S. security was harmed when WikiLeaks published videos of a 2007 attack by an American Apache helicopter gunship in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff, diplomatic cables and secret details on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
Manning’s leaks to the site in 2009 and 2010 put the international spotlight on Assange.
Manning showed little reaction during the hearing, which lasted only about five minutes.
A crowd of about 30 Manning supporters gathered outside Fort Meade, where the court-martial was held. One of them, Nathan Fuller, said it was a relief that Manning had been acquitted of the most serious charge but expressed concern over the stiff sentence he could still face.
“The remaining charges against him are still tantamount to life in prison. That’s still an outrage,” Fuller said. “He’s equated with spies and traitors.”
But two top U.S. congressmen from a House intelligence committee praised the verdict.
“Justice has been served today. PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes,” said Reps. Michael Rogers, a Republican who is chairman of the committee and Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat and its ranking member.
“There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security,” they said in a joint statement.
Manning, originally from Crescent, Okla., opted to have his case heard by a judge, rather than a panel of military jurors.
During the court-martial proceedings, military prosecutors called the defendant a “traitor” for publicly posting information that the U.S. government said could jeopardize national security and intelligence operations.
Defense lawyers described Manning as well-intentioned but naive in hoping that his disclosures would provoke a more intense debate in the United States about diplomatic and military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.