Private Manning convicted of espionage, but not of aiding enemy

Private Manning convicted of espionage, but not of aiding enemy

FORT MEADE - Agence France-Presse
Private Manning convicted of espionage, but not of aiding enemy

U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning leaves a military court facility after hearing his verdict in the trial at Fort Meade, Maryland on July 30. AFP photo

American soldier Bradley Manning was found guilty of espionage on Tuesday for leaking US government secrets, but he was cleared of the most serious charge that he willfully helped Al-Qaeda.

Manning, in full military uniform, showed little emotion as he heard his fate in a nine-minute judgment that could still see him jailed 136 years for handing classified information to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website headed by Julian Assange.

Tuesday's verdict follows an exhaustive two-month court martial at the Fort Meade military base in Maryland, near the US capital. Manning's sentencing, which could take up to another month of further court time, will begin Wednesday. The 25-year-old US Army private was working as an intelligence analyst near Baghdad when he was arrested more than three years ago, and he has been detained ever since.

Having admitted earlier this year that he had passed more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, Manning's culpability was no longer in question, and he was ultimately found guilty of all but two of the 22 offenses for which he was tried.

But he was cleared of the court martial's most controversial charge, that of "aiding the enemy." Government lawyers had argued the soldier exhibited malign intent in transmitting the files to WikiLeaks, which later published them, much to the embarrassment of the United States and its allies. The prosecution said such actions directly benefited Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, but Colonel Denise Lind, the presiding judge, was not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that such damage had occurred.

"On charge one court finds you not guilty," Lind told Manning. The aiding the enemy charge on its own carried a life sentence.

Manning supporters had gathered early at Fort Meade, and some of them were in the courtroom for the verdict. But before delivering her judgment Lind warned that any outbursts from the public gallery would see people ejected, and the audience duly stayed silent as she then convicted Manning of all but one of the remaining charges.

Lind found the soldier guilty of seven of eight counts he faced under the Espionage Act, including stealing US government property and committing computer fraud relating to confidential records. He was also guilty of "wanton publication of intelligence on the Internet," and of leaking graphic cockpit footage of two US Apache attack helicopters killing 12 civilians on a Baghdad street in 2007 -- a video dubbed "Collateral Murder" when it was released by WikiLeaks.

However, Manning was found not guilty of leaking classified records relating to a US military air strike in the Granai region of Afghanistan in May 2009. The Afghan government said some 140 civilians died in that incident, including 92 children, but the United States put the toll at less than 100 and said 65 of the victims were insurgents.

Manning's disclosures largely comprised US diplomatic cables and classified battlefield reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was convicted on all five counts that he failed to obey military orders and regulations in his handling and improper storage of confidential information.

The young soldier's case is considered a crucial test case for the fate of anyone who discloses classified government information. Tuesday's verdict was greeted with fury by WikiLeaks, who said on Twitter that the court decision reflected "dangerous national security extremism" on the part of US President Barack Obama's White House.

Assange later told reporters Manning was "unquestionably heroic" and that he expected the judgment to be appealed.

WikiLeaks is also working with a second American leaker, civilian former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who is seeking asylum in Russia after revealing secret US electronic surveillance programs.

His supporters have cited Manning's trial as proof Snowden was right to flee abroad with his leaks rather than face trial at home.

London-based rights group Amnesty International accused the US of "a serious overreach" in its unsuccessful pursuit of charges of "aiding the enemy." "The government's priorities are upside down," it said in a statement.

Reporters Without Borders described the judgment as dangerous and said it illustrated the "unprecedented offensive" the Obama administration "has been waging" against people who disclose sensitive government information.

Manning's defense team argued throughout the trial he was "young and naive" and acted out of conscience, saying the Army private sought to shine a light and start a debate about what he felt was government misconduct.

But the prosecution insisted Manning recklessly betrayed his uniform and his country by leaking documents he knew Al-Qaeda would see and use.

"Your honor, he was not a whistleblower, he was a traitor," lead prosecutor Major Ashden Fein told the court earlier this month.