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Manning conviction sends a warning

Verdict may be a victory for Obama administration's aggressive campaign against leakers, but journalists and rights groups warn it could have a chilling effect on US national security reporting. Taimur Khan reports from New York

A supporter of Bradley Manning protests outside the main gate before the reading of the verdict in Manning's military trial at Fort Meade, Maryland.
A supporter of Bradley Manning protests outside the main gate before the reading of the verdict in Manning's military trial at Fort Meade, Maryland.

NEW YORK // The conviction of Bradley Manning on charges of espionage is a victory for the Barack Obama administration's aggressive legal campaign against people believed to have leaked government secrets to the media, but journalists and rights groups warned yesterday that it could have a chilling effect on US national security reporting.

Government accountability activists applauded the military judge's decision to acquit the former army intelligence analyst of the most serious charge levelled against him - aiding the enemy. That breach of military law is punishable by death and a conviction would have set an ominous precedent for current and former officials providing testimony to investigative journalists, rights groups said.

A military judge on Tuesday found Manning guilty of 20 crimes, including five breaches of the Espionage Act, and he now faces up to 136 years in prison. The sentencing proceedings began yesterday and more witnesses are set to testify before the judge as to Manning's intentions.

But even as the most far-reaching consequences of the leaks trial were avoided, legal experts and rights activists said they feared that Manning's conviction on espionage charges could deter would-be whistle-blowers from coming forward. Manning had admitted passing secret documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, but pleaded not guilty to aiding the enemy.

"Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information - which carry significant punishment - it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future" said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Manning was accused of aiding the enemy on the basis that the information he provided to WikiLeaks assisted Al Qaeda, which could have viewed it online even though Manning did not communicate with the group directly. Many argued that a conviction on this charge would have severely limited press freedom because any classified information the media made public could be claimed to have aided terrorists.

Manning, 25, had been held in a military prison for three years after being charged with leaking more than 700,000 classified diplomatic cables as well as Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, including footage of US troops killing civilians.

Despite warnings by US officials at the time that the leaks caused irreparable damage, a Pentagon assessment in August 2010 found that the leaks had not compromised intelligence sources or practices.

Before his court martial began last month, Manning had already pleaded guilty to lesser charges of leaking classified information and said he had done so to "cause society to reevaluate the need … to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore their effect on people who live in that environment every day".

But the Obama administration has pursued people who leak classified information to journalists on a scale unprecedented in US history, arguing that they are a breach of the Espionage Act, a law originally drafted to prosecute spies and those who would pass state secrets to foreign governments.

It has brought charges in seven criminal cases under the act, more than during all previous US presidencies combined, though Manning is the first to be convicted of the crime during Mr Obama's tenure.

"This is a historic verdict," Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Programme at the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University Law School told Wired magazine. "Manning is one of very few people ever charged under the Espionage Act prosecuted for leaks to the media. The only other person who was convicted after trial was pardoned. Despite the lack of any evidence that he intended any harm to the United States, Manning faces decades in prison. That's a very scary precedent."

The Manning verdict, combined with the recent federal court ruling that a New York Times reporter must testify at the trial of an alleged CIA source, could make potential sources more unwilling to speak to journalists.

"It sends a really strong message to would-be leakers that they are facing the potential of prosecution," said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a Boston College law professor.

The Manning verdict comes amid the fallout of another major national security leak that exposed the US National Security Agency's extensive monitoring of internet users and collection of millions of domestic phone logs.

Edward Snowden, a former CIA technical specialist and former government intelligence contractor, leaked details of the NSA programme to the press and is currently holed up in Moscow airport seeking asylum from Russia or one of several Latin American countries after being charged under the Espionage Act.

The disclosures led to widespread public anger and the first Senate hearings into the clandestine programme began yesterday.

Also yesterday, the Obama administration ordered the declassification of some documents associated with the programme, in order to mollify members of Congress who believe they and the public were misled about the extent of the NSA's data collection.

The NSA leaks revealed how large Washington's national security apparatus has become in the decade since the September 11 attacks, and how much the line between foreign intelligence gathering and domestic surveillance has blurred.

More than four million people working for US intelligence agencies hold security clearances, according the the government's own tallies.

"Lurking just behind a military court's conviction of Pfc Bradley Manning … is a national-security apparatus that has metastasised into a vast and largely unchecked exercise of government secrecy and the overzealous prosecution of those who breach it," a New York Times editorial said yesterday.

tkhan@thenational.ae

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