The military judge in the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning got her decision Tuesday exactly right.
Col. Denise Lind found Manning guilty of most of the lesser charges against him for leaking military documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. But she found him not guilty of aiding U.S. enemies -- the Obama administration's nuclear option to stop persistent government leaks. Manning will serve jail time, but a conviction on aiding enemies would have meant life in prison with no possibility of parole. That would have been unjust.
Manning had agreed to plead guilty to many of the lesser charges for leaking more than 700,000 pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks, which posted the sensitive material online. But fortunately, his attorney fought the aiding charge, which asserted Manning had cravenly helped al-Qaida.
A guilty verdict on that charge would have set a horrible precedent. Leaking documents to the news media or the Internet might be done in concert with America's foes, but claiming this is true by definition is preposterous. The leaker's intent, misguided or not, can be patriotic. The aggressive prosecution of Manning could have a chilling effect on potential government whistle-blowers, which no doubt was the administration's hope.
Prosecutors argued the 25-year-old Manning betrayed his oath and his country, a fair accusation covered by the lesser charges. But they further argued he had helped al-Qaida because the terrorist group could access secret material once WikiLeaks posted it. This charge relied on a theory of prosecution not used successfully since the Civil War.
It was Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, a Union soldier, who was last convicted of aiding the enemy through a leak to a publication. Vanderwater was found guilty of leaking a Union roster to an Alexandria, Va., newspaper. He was dishonourably discharged and served a three-month sentence, but for Manning, the stakes were much higher.
Col. Lind's decision came at the end of an eight-week trial in which the prosecution and defence battled to shape Manning's image.
Prosecutors cast him as a loose cannon who had caused profound damage. In the closing argument, Maj. Ashden Fein said Manning had disregarded the "sensitivity" of the material he leaked and "decided to release it to a bunch of anti-government activists and anarchists to achieve maximum exposure, and advance his personal quest for notoriety."
Defence attorney David Combs repeatedly portrayed Manning as "well-intentioned" and naive, a characterization on the other extreme but closer to the truth, it seemed, than Fein's. Combs said Manning was motivated by the violence in Iraq and wanted to "spark a worldwide discussion."
Mission accomplished. Now he must pay for choosing that path. But life in prison would have been too high a price.
See also: Manning reminded Americans that presidents can do wrong, Tim Weiner writes at wfp.to/comment.