Bradley Manning Convicted

The following are the thoughts of D.C. whistleblower lawyer Tony Munter on the verdict in the Bradley Manning espionage trial.

Whistleblower organizations and the media are doing their best to be brave about the verdict in the Bradley Manning case today. Obviously it could have been much worse for the former Private and for future whistleblowers if he had been convicted of “aiding the enemy.”

Still, he faces as many as 136 years in military prison as a result of the Judge’s decision finding him guilty on 17 of 22 counts. As the Guardian put it:

The one ray of light in an otherwise bleak outcome for Manning was that he was found not guilty of the single most serious charge against him – that he knowingly “aided the enemy”, in practice al-Qaida, by disclosing information to the WikiLeaks website that in turn made it accessible to all users including enemy groups.

[The Judge’s] decision to avoid setting a precedent by applying the swingeing “aiding the enemy” charge to an official leaker will invoke a sigh of relief from news organisations and civil liberties groups who had feared a guilty verdict would send a chill across public interest journalism.

The Judge found Manning guilty of seven of the eight charges brought under the Espionage Act. This is an extraordinary situation for somebody nobody really thinks intended to aid the enemy or profit personally from his actions.  The law had mostly been used to deal with those engaged in spying on the United States in prior years. Now it appears it can be used, at least with respect to military personnel, on those who would leak information to the public.  I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to suggest that such a prosecution will have a chilling effect on reporters and their sources.

As the day began, whistleblowers and whistleblower advocates were buzzing about Manning at a summit held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.  Manning is a controversial figure even among whistleblower advocates since, as one prominent activist put it, we are “not aware” of any efforts Manning or Wikileaks made to pre-screen the massive amount of material he leaked and they published.

Nobody expected Manning to walk away a free man today, but charging him with aiding the enemy does seem like an effort to scare anyone from trying to release or print truthful information.  As the National Whistleblowers Center said in a statement, “Mr. Manning pleaded guilty to lesser offenses related to his disclosure of classified information.  That should have ended the case.”

While Manning is guilty of disclosing classified information, we are left to trust the powerful with the decisions as to what should be classified and who should be allowed to know.   That makes whistleblower advocates nervous. As one advocate put it, “there is no freedom of the press without freedom for sources.”

The lack of any protection for national security whistleblowers combined with a lack of any process Manning could have used to leak information he was concerned about internally without facing prosecution will create more cases like this.  Leaks will continue because there will always be somebody who will act to get information out to the public, and absent an internal option, they will go to the likes of WikiLeaks first.

If the military is serious about wanting to prevent the next such episode then they need to do more than try to scare off every would-be leaker.  They need a credible internal apparatus to allow whistleblowers in possession of national security information to present it to somebody who can do something about it and treat classified material in a safe way and protect the whistleblower from such retaliation. There are efforts afoot to create just these sorts of new responsible protections and processes, but there are no concrete results as of yet. Manning was only a Private, but he had access to a trove of files. He was young and acted with little sophistication and yet created a huge problem for the military.

For Manning, any effort to create a new internal whistleblowing process is already too late. We’ll have to see what the Judge decides in his sentencing procedure.