Price of security: Manning's verdict should lead to a national debate

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Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private whom a military court convicted Tuesday of leaking classified government documents, must bear the consequences of his law-breaking. But his revelations should help make public officials more accountable for their actions, both in waging war abroad and in building security at home.

Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge, properly acquitted Pfc. Manning of the most serious charge: aiding the enemy. Although prosecutors noted that some of the documents he gave to the WikiLeaks Web site turned up on the computers of al-Qaida leaders, the defense argued that Pfc. Manning, had shown no intent to harm this country. He said he wanted to stimulate a public debate on U.S. war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of his whistle-blowing was valuable, as with his release of a video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed 12 civilians. At other times, his leaks were clumsy and reckless.

Some documents included names of individual U.S. operatives and foreign nationals who risked their lives to serve this country. Pfc. Manning's release of State Department cables, in the name of "open diplomacy," has damaged the conduct of U.S. foreign relations to an extent still undefined.

But Pfc. Manning has not tried to escape responsibility for his actions, conceding that he broke the law when he pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges against him. His conviction included other charges that could add up to a prison term of 136 years. Violating national security is a grave offense meriting meaningful punishment.

More broadly, the issues that Pfc. Manning raised through his disclosures remain to be engaged. Does the government's system for classifying documents really protect national security or is it absurdly overbroad? Has the administration's aggressive pursuit of leakers made Americans safer or just denied them information they have a right to know?

Pfc. Manning is neither a hero nor a traitor. He broke the law and must pay for that. But his conviction will have greater value if it generates a serious debate on national security, and the extent of government secrecy and limits on freedom needed to achieve it.

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