By Teresa Welsh |
While Bradley Manning avoided the most pernicious charge he faced today, "aiding the enemy," the judge's decision to convict him on 19 other charges, including multiple counts under the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, sets a terrible precedent for both investigative journalists and the sources they rely on to inform the public.
Manning is now the most high profile conviction under President Obama's crackdown on leakers. As has been well documented, his administration has prosecuted more leakers under the Espionage Act than all other administration's combined, and has cast a distinct chill over investigative journalism.
The Espionage Act, a draconian statute written in 1917 as a way to punish non-violent opponents of World War I, has unfortunately been used in recent years to equate leakers and whistleblowers with spies and traitors. Facilitating that warped view in Manning's trial, the judge ruled early on that the defense was not allowed to put forth evidence of Manning's sole intent – to inform the American public – or evidence showing that none of the information materially harmed national security.
This harsh conviction, coupled with a little noticed ruling unsealed this week in the Stephen Kim/Fox News leak case, will make it much easier for the government to charge leakers under the Espionage Act in the future. It's just the latest sign that the law has been morphed into a version of the U.K.'s Official Secrets Act—something that should be considered unconstitutional in the United States.
Today's ruling also opens up a new avenue for charging leakers and whistleblowers—section (a)(1) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which until now, has never led to a conviction. It's was crafted in the 1990s by taking some of the worst parts of the Espionage Act and adding the phrase "with a computer."
All of these charges were unnecessary from the start, given that Manning had already pleaded guilty to 10 lesser counts that would land him up to 20 years in jail no matter the outcome of the trial. With this verdict, the government is not seeking justice, it's seeking to intimidate and scare any future whistleblowers from coming forward with potentially vital information that the public should know.
There is a sliver of hope for Manning – the sentencing hearing begins tomorrow and there are no minimum sentences for the crimes he has been convicted of. The defense will also now be able to admit evidence as to his intent and the lack of damage the disclosures cost.
Regardless, today is a dark day for press freedom in this country and hopefully these unnecessary charges will be overturned on appeal.
About Trevor Timm Co-Founder and Executive Director of Freedom of the Press Foundation
Nathan Sales Professor at George Mason University School of Law.