By Ashley Fantz and Larry Shaughnessy
FORT MEADE, Maryland (CNN) — A military judge acquitted Army Pfc. Bradley Manning on Tuesday of aiding the enemy, but convicted him of violations of the Espionage Act for turning over a trove of classified data to the website WikiLeaks, in a case where the soldier has been portrayed variously as a traitor and as a whistle-blower.
The verdict by the judge, Col. Denise Lind, dismissed the prosecution’s argument that Manning released documents — in the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history — that he knew would end up in the hands of al Qaeda. The verdict also found Manning not guilty of unauthorized possession of information relating to national defense.
If he had been found guilty of aiding the enemy, he would have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Manning still faces the prospect of years, if not decades, behind bars. He was found guilty of most of the remaining 20 counts against him. The sentencing phase of the court-martial begins Wednesday, and Manning faces up to a maximum 136 years in prison.
Among the charges, Manning was found guilty of the theft of more than 700 U.S. Southern Command records, the possession of records pertaining to Afghanistan; the theft of State Department cables and the possession of classified Army documents.
Wikileaks called the conviction of Manning “a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism.”
“It is a short sighted judgment that can not be tolerated and must be reversed,” the group said in a statement released Tuesday. “It can never be that conveying true information to the public is ‘espionage.'”
Manning already has spent three years in custody and, while he’s been behind bars, questions about whether his actions made him a traitor or a whistle-blower have been hotly debated.
Authorities say he delivered three-quarters of a million pages of classified documents and videos to the secret-sharing site WikiLeaks, which has never confirmed the soldier was the source of its information. The material covered numerous aspects of U.S. military strategy in Iraq, gave what some called a ground view of events in the Afghanistan war and revealed the inner workings of U.S. State Department diplomacy in leaked cables.
The verdict is “historic,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the non-partisan Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“The judge rejected the government’s argument that Manning, by virtue of his training as an intelligence officer, must have known that the information he disclosed was likely to reach al Qaeda,” Goitein said in a written statement. “But she also ruled that Manning had reason to believe his disclosures could harm the U.S., even if that was not his goal.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, issued a statement saying that “it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information” to the media in the future.
Amnesty International also weighed in. The verdict “reveals the U.S. government’s misplaced priorities on national security,” it posted online.
“The government’s pursuit of the ‘aiding the enemy’ charge was a serious overreach of the law, not least because there was no credible evidence of Manning’s intent to harm the USA by releasing classified information to Wikileaks,” said Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International.
When he entered his guilty pleas on the lesser charges this year, Manning spent more than an hour in court reading a statement about why he had leaked the information.
He said the information he passed on “upset” or “disturbed” him, but there was nothing he thought would harm the United States if it became public. Manning said that he thought the documents were old and that the situations they referred to had changed or ended.
“I believed if the public was aware of the data, it would start a public debate of the wars,” he said during his court-martial. He was “depressed about the situation there,” meaning Iraq, where he was stationed as an intelligence analyst.
On Tuesday, Lind, the judge, accepted only two of the guilty pleas he had made previously to lesser charges. Those two were possession of a video that was marked classified and that he exceeded authority by obtaining a State Department cable. Those two counts carry a maximum sentence of two years.
The young soldier from a small town in Oklahoma said that he first tried to give the information to The Washington Post, but a reporter there didn’t seem like she took him seriously.
He left a voice mail for The New York Times and sent an e-mail to the newspaper but, he says, he didn’t hear back.
So, he said, he decided to give the information to WikiLeaks.
At some point, according to a California hacker Adrian Lamo, who says he communicated via instant messaging with Manning, the soldier confessed to possessing sensitive documents.
Shortly after alleged messages between Manning and Lamo were published in 2010, Lamo spoke to CNN.
He said he turned Manning in to authorities. His reason?
“… it seemed incomprehensible that someone could leak that massive amount of data and not have it endanger human life,” Lamo said. “If I had acted for my own comfort and convenience and sat on my hands with that information, and I had endangered national security … I would have been the worst kind of coward.”
As Manning’s court case dragged on, in December 2011 his defense argued that the military didn’t heed warning signs that the soldier was falling apart mentally.
A few months before Manning was arrested, Army command referred him to a psychologist for evaluation because he appeared to be “under considerable stress” and “did not appear to have any social support system and seemed hypersensitive to any criticism” and “was potentially a danger to himself and others.”
WikiLeaks, Assange and Manning
Manning was arrested within months of a video that appeared on WikiLeaks in April 2010. The secrets-busting site called it “Collateral Murder.” It appeared to be shot from a U.S. Apache helicopter as it fired on a group of people in Baghdad in 2007. A dozen people were killed; among them were a Reuters TV news cameraman and his driver.
The video showed that Reuters’ Saeed Chmagh survived an initial strafing by the helicopter, but apparently died when it opened fire again — this time on people attempting to get him off the sidewalk where he lay and to move him into a van.
The footage quickly made news, elevating what was once virtually unknown WikiLeaks to a globally recognized name. Later, a U.S. investigation into the attack found that the crew mistook the journalists’ cameras for weapons while seeking out insurgents who had been firing at American troops in the area.
But, according to court documents and testimony, by the time the world saw the video, Manning had already downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified documents and videos.
Within months, the soldier had been accused of using his computer skills to commit what the government called treason.
While Manning sat behind bars, WikiLeaks and its chief Julian Assange became household names.
WikiLeaks published a trove of documents related to the Afghanistan war in 2010 and followed that with a headline-making document dump about the Iraq war and then another release of diplomatic messages by U.S. State Department diplomats.
“We call those types of people that are willing to risk … being a martyr for all the rest of us, we call those people heroes,” Assange has told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Bradley Manning is a hero.”
Assange described the case against Manning, specifically the aiding the enemy charge, as a serious attack against investigative journalism.
“It will be the end, essentially, of national security journalism in the United States,” he said on the eve of the verdict.
Assange spoke from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. He sought refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sex crimes.
Assange has said he thinks the claims against him are Washington’s way of getting him arrested so that he can be extradited to the United States to face charges.
Manning’s supporters from the start
Manning has another well-known cheerleader — Daniel Ellsberg, famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, which published them in 1971. The documents showed that several presidents knew that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable quagmire and that the government had lied to Congress and the public about the progress of the conflict.
Ellsberg told CNN that he views Manning as a “hero” and he shares a kinship with him. In fact, Ellsberg was so committed to making sure the world understood his support for the young soldier that he went to the White House in 2011 to be arrested while protesting.
“I was that young man; I was Bradley Manning,” he said. A YouTube video of Ellsberg talking about Manning and the case has been viewed 2,228 times.
Ellsberg’s voice has joined many across the country over the past three years. The Bradley Manning Support Network sprang up in 2010, made up of people from across the world, the vast majority united by the group’s website.
March and protest
On Tuesday night, dozens of supporters marched from Dupont Circle Park in Washington to the White House in Manning’s name.
The Bradley Manning Support Network helped pay for Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, and as of January, in the last count the group offers, there were 25,632 signatures on an online petition asking that all charges against Manning be dropped.
Coombs tried to have charges dismissed, without success, and kept a blog throughout his representation of Manning. Several of those entries describe documents that Coombs filed alleging that Manning had been mistreated during his initial detainment at Quantico military prison in Virginia. He blogged that Manning was “forced to stand naked at parade rest where he was in view of multiple guards” and was “required to wear a heavy and restrictive suicide smock which irritated his skin and, on one occasion, almost choked him.”
Manning was moved to Fort Leavenworth Joint Regional Correctional Facility in April 2011. He was later transferred to Fort Meade when hearings began in his case.
CNN’s Larry Shaughnessy reported from Fort Meade, and Chelsea J. Carter and Ashley Fantz reported and wrote from Atlanta; CNN’s Chris Lawrence, Carol Cratty and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.