FORT MEADE, Md. -- A military judge on Tuesday found Pfc. Bradley Manning not guilty of "aiding the enemy" for his release of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks for publication on the Internet, rejecting the government's unprecedented effort to bring such a charge in a leak case.
But the court-martial judge, Col. Denise R. Lind, convicted Pfc. Manning, 25, of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and most of the other crimes he was charged with. He faces a theoretical maximum sentence of 136 years in prison, although legal experts said the actual term was likely to be much shorter.
While open-government advocates celebrated his acquittal on the most serious charge, the case still appears destined to stand as a fierce warning to any government employee tempted to make public vast numbers of secret documents. Pfc. Manning's actions lifted a veil on U.S. military and diplomatic activities around the world and engendered a broad debate over what information should become public, how the government treats leakers, and what happens to those who see themselves as whistle-blowers.
"We always hate to see a government employee who was trying to publicize wrongdoing convicted of a crime, but this case was unusual from the start because of the scope of his release," said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, adding, "Whistle-blowers always know they are taking risks, and the more they reveal, the bigger the threat is against them."
Col. Lind said she would issue findings later that would explain her ruling on each of the charges. But she appeared to reject the government's theory that an employee who gives information about national security matters to an organization that publishes it online for the world to see is guilty of aiding the enemy.
The premise of that theory is that the world includes not just ordinary people who might engage in socially valuable debate, but also enemies such as al-Qaida. Critics have said it is not clear how giving information to WikiLeaks is different for legal purposes from giving it to traditional news organizations that publish online.
Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, who testified in Pfc. Manning's defense, praised the judge for making an "extremely important decision" that he portrayed as denying "the prosecution's effort to launch the most dangerous assault on investigative journalism and the free press in the area of national security that we have seen in decades." But he said the decades of imprisonment that Pfc. Manning could face "is still too high a price for any democracy to demand of its whistle-blowers."
The sentencing phase will begin today, with more than 20 witnesses scheduled to appear for both the prosecution and the defense. It could last for weeks; there are no sentencing guidelines or minimum sentences in the military justice system. Pfc. Manning's appeals could go on for years, legal experts said.
Yale Law School military law professor Eugene R. Fidell said Pfc. Manning would not be sentenced to anywhere near the 136-year maximum because Col. Lind was likely to collapse some charges, so he did not "get punished twice for the same underlying conduct."
The case has arisen amid an Obama administration crackdown on leaks and a debate about government secrecy. Pfc. Manning is one of seven people to be charged in connection with leaking to the news media during the Obama administration; during all previous administrations, there were three.
The Justice Department recently won an appeals court ruling forcing New York Times reporter and author James Risen to testify in the criminal trial of a former intelligence official accused of being his source. And it has used aggressive tactics in secretly subpoenaing communications records of Fox News and Associated Press reporters.