Verdict Imminent in Manning Court-Martial
FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - The military judge presiding over the trial of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning said she may have a verdict by Tuesday afternoon.
The 25-year-old former intelligence specialist faces 22 charges connected with the disclosure of more than 700,000 military and diplomatic files, including battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. embassy cables, Guantanamo detainee profiles, and footage of airstrikes that killed civilians.
Manning said he hoped the publication of this information would spark widespread debate, reforms, and reportage about the way the U.S. conducts warfare and diplomacy.
Prosecutors accuse the young soldier of "aiding the enemy," claiming that the information Manning leaked wound up in the hands of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The charge ignited controversy for equating press leaks to treason. Amnesty International assailed the charge as "ludicrous," and newspapers and other outlets around the country warned that a conviction would set a precedent that would chill national security reporting.
Eugene Fidell, an expert of military law at Yale University, noted that the aiding the enemy statute is one of two offenses in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that apply to "any person," meaning that one does not need to be an officer or soldier to breach it.
The other offense, he said, relates to espionage. Fidell also noted that the Constitution places other restrictions.
"The law is quite clear that a civilian cannot be tried in peacetime for a military offense if the courts are open," Fidell said. "Now, the law has shifted on that with respect to persons serving with or accompanying an armed force in a time of war."
He cited the case of Alaa Mohammad Ali, a dual Iraqi-Canadian citizen working as a translator in Baghdad. When he stabbed a fellow civilian contractor, Ali became the first foreign national whose was case brought to a U.S. court-martial. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces rejected Ali's challenge to his subsequent conviction on jurisdictional grounds, and the Supreme Court recently denied certiorari.
Fidell pointed to this case as an example how contractors could fall under the reach of the "any person" language, but he doubted that reporters or noncontractor civilians would fall under the statute's crosshairs.
National Security Administration whistle-blower Edward Snowden could not fall under this interpretation because he was not "serving with or accompanying an armed force in the field," Fidell said.
Asked about the potential "chilling effect" of a conviction, Fidell said, "I think it will chill sources. That's part of the purpose." Other charges include Espionage Act of 1917, a statute originally intended to clamp down on World War I dissenters.
Since its passage nearly a century ago, the Espionage Act only has been used 10 times to punish a leak to the press. Seven of those times occurred under the administration of President Barack Obama. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called Obama's use of this statute as a "war on whistle-blowers."
Manning also faces multiple counts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which faced recent criticism after its harsh penalties seemingly drove so-called "hactivist" Aaron Swartz to commit suicide.
Before trial, Manning offered to plead guilty to 10 so-called "lesser included offenses," which would reduce his potential sentencing exposure by replacing the more exotic charges with more mundane military violations. The guilty pleas themselves would expose the young soldier to as many as 20 years in prison.
If convicted as charged, Manning could face a life sentence, plus an additional 154 years in prison.
Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over Manning's court-martial, said Monday that she expects to announce her verdict on Tuesday at 1 p.m.