“I guess the best you can say is that it could have been worse,” Bea Edwards, the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, said of today’s ruling in the Bradley Manning trial.
When the verdict was first announced, there was some relief that the Army private accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks was acquitted of the charge of aiding the enemy. A conviction on that count would have carried a life sentence. However, “even charging him with aiding the enemy is an unprecedented stretch for the prosecution,” Edwards told TakePart.
Escaping a life sentence doesn’t mean Manning has avoided a verdict that would leave him living the rest of his life behind bars: He was found guilty on other counts, including five under the World War I-era Espionage Act, which together carry a maximum sentence of 136 years in prison.
Here’s how it could have been worse, according to Edwards: “When someone who released material on the Internet or in any other broadcast fashion can be charged with aiding the enemy—and if he had been convicted on that charge—it would mean that if, say, troops found a Newsweek magazine on a nightstand at a training camp, then anyone who had written for that magazine could be charged with aiding the enemy.”
If aiding the enemy was the most serious charge, the charge of violating the Espionage Act, which was originally intended to prosecute spies in early 20th century, is by no means tame in comparison. The fact that government prosecutors have to reach so far back to find a law suitable for the circumstance speaks to the “tradition of a country that respects and reveres the First Amendment,” according to Edwards. But the backlash against whistleblowers has put the “slim repertoire” of laws under which they can be prosecuted to the test.
“The country has gotten into a very deep contradiction in terms, where the default position of government agencies—and not just intelligence agencies but all government agencies—has been to classify and make secret more and more material without having to present either to the public or to the agency as a whole a real justification for why the information contained in a given document can’t be released,” says Edwards. “And at the same time we don’t have a tradition or even a large array of legal mechanisms to enforce classification.”
The sentencing phase of the trial will begin tomorrow, and all that can definitively be said at this point, in addition to the maximum possible sentence, is that Manning will be awarded 112 days credit off the time he has to serve. This, despite the fact he’s been in custody since 2010, and held under conditions the UN special rapporteur on torture called cruel, inhuman and degrading.
Unsurprisingly, Julian Assange is less than pleased with the verdict. In a statement issued from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, the founder of WikiLeaks called this “first ever espionage conviction” for a whistleblower “a dangerous precedent.”
“It is a shortsighted judgment that cannot be tolerated and must be reversed. It can never be that conveying true information to the public is ‘espionage,’ ” says Assange.