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Friday, August 2, 2013

Reaction to the Manning Verdict

An Al Jazeera English video report on the verdict in the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning.

This post was updated as more reaction to the verdict appeared.

Last Updated, 7:51 p.m. As my colleague Charlie Savage reports, a military judge found Pfc. Bradley Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who provided hundreds of thousands of secret documents to Wikileaks, not guilty of aiding the enemy but guilty on multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act at the conclusion of his court-martial in Fort Meade, Md., on Tuesday.

As Charlie explains: “Beyond the fate of Private Manning as an individual, the ‘aiding the enemy' charge - unprecedented in a leak case - could have significant long-term ramifications for investigative journalism in the Internet era. The government's theory was that providing defense-related information to an entity that published it for the world to see constituted aiding the enemy because the world includes adversaries, like members of Al Qaeda, who could read the documents online.”

It was this aspect of the case that Wikileaks, like many journalists, focused on in response to the verdict. In an update posted on the official @Wikileaks Twitter feed shortly after the ruling, (which included a typo, misspelling the word “counts” as “courts”), the group called the precedent troubling.

Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, said in a statement released later: “Bradley Manning's alleged disclosures have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions, and induced democratic reform. He is the quintessential whistleblower.”

Jen Robinson, a media lawyer who worked on Mr. Assange's unsuccessful effort to have an extradition request from Sweden quashed in a British court, expressed dismay that the military judge called Private Manning's actions espionage, not whistleblowing.

The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the verdict as a government attempt “to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”

As the Slate blogger Dave Weigel reported, though, several members of Congress, expressed disappointment that the verdict was not a harsher one. “I'm very surprised by the verdict,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican member of the Homeland Security committee who also sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence. “I believe the information he disclosed was extremely harmful to our country.”

“I'm not saying Wikileaks was the enemy,” Senator Collins told Mr. Weigel. “I'm saying that the information revealed was helpful to those who do not wish us well.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a veteran Republican who was once as an Air Force lawyer, said: “This is one of the more serious things that I've seen a military member do in 30 years.” He added: “I hope people who say he's a hero see they're misguided in terms of what a hero might be.”

Among those deeply critical of the verdict on Tuesday was Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, who oversaw the publication of dozens of front-page articles in 2010 based on the secret State Department cables Private Manning provided to Wikileaks.

Mr. Keller, who is now an Op-Ed columnist, wrote:

In the cases of mega-leakers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, the United States has sent a crude but clear message: if you're thinking of violating your obligation to keep secrets, think again, because we will track you down and smack you down. You may be sainted whistleblowers in the eyes of some, but you are traitors in the eyes of your government.

In the Manning case, the gratuitous and implausible charge of aiding the enemy â€" thankfully rejected Tuesday by the presiding judge, Colonel Denise Lind â€" was particularly chilling. Manning's motives in leaking a treasury of secrets to WikiLeaks seemed to be a mix of politics and personal discontent, but there was no evidence he intended or even imagined that his disclosures would help America's enemies.

Adrian Lamo, the former hacker who turned in Private Manning after the leaker had confided in him in an online chat, told The Guardian that the soldier was “guilty as hell” of the charges.

The Guardian also published a statement on the verdict from an unnamed aunt of Private Manning, who said: “While we are obviously disappointed in today's verdicts, we are happy that Judge Lind agreed with us that Brad never intended to help America's enemies in any way. Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform.”

While American cable news networks initially gave the verdict very little coverage - perhaps because the issues involved do not lend themselves to straightforward arguments along partisan political lines - the government-owned Russian network, Russia Today, has devoted a lot of time to the case. On Tuesday, Russia Today, which rarely misses an opportunity to highlight criticism of the American government, got a reaction to the verdict from Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist and Wikileaks spokesman who is one of Mr. Assange's closest aides.

An interview with Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, from Russia Today, a government-owned channel.

Mr. Hrafnsson called Private Manning “one of the most important whistle-blowers in history” and repeated the controversial claim made by Mr. Assange that the leak of State Department cables “led to profound political and social changes in the Middle East” by acting as a catalyst for the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Frank Jordans, an Associated Press correspondent in Berlin, reminded readers that the first item published by Wikileaks from the trove of material provided by Private Manning was video recorded from American helicopter gunships as the airmen shot and killed civilians they mistook for militants, including two Reuters journalists, in Baghdad in 2007.

An edited version of that video, titled “Collateral Murder” by Wikileaks, has been viewed nearly 14 million times on YouTube since it was uploaded in April 2010. As The Times reported then, the release of that video made the online whistle-blowing platform the focus of international attention.

By making that edit, and by dispatching an Icelandic journalist to Iraq to produce a video report on the victims of the attack, Wikileaks also began to act more like a journalistic organization than a pure platform for providing raw materials to the public. Within months, the organization all but abandoned the original idea of having readers analyze leaked documents through crowdsourcing, along the lines of Wikipedia, and formed a partnership with five news organizations - The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel - whose journalists looked for important information in the trove of hundreds of thousands of leaked American diplomatic cables.

While it was not difficult to find the opinions of prominent critics of the verdict - no doubt in large part because the prosecution of someone who leaked government documents of interest to the public could well discourage other sources from providing similarly important information to reporters - strong supporters of the government's position were less in evidence in the media. One place to look, however, was in the forums devoted to comments from readers, rather than reporters, including the one beneath this blog post.

“I am a liberal Democrat, a sometimes member of the A.C.L.U. and a former Pfc. with the highest level security clearance, with statements signed under stiff penalties for violating any classified information received in the course of my army duties,” a Lede reader named John Beard wrote from North Carolina. “I took my commitment to safeguard those secrets seriously. I am not sympathetic to Pfc. Manning's post-disclosure predicament, and resent Ron Paul's and others assertions that “spying” or other covert actions undertaken to ferret out Taliban and other subversive groups originated with President Obama's administration. The spying originated and with and continued throughout the GWB post-9/11 administration.”

A reader named Lucas, perhaps not incidentally writing from Washington, agreed:

Manning is not a whistleblower. Whisleblowers do not indiscriminately hand a foreign, anti-American entity hundreds of thousands of documents on various and sundry topics. Manning is a document dumper who deserves time in prison for his actions.

As for Wikileaks, the organization has become the Julian Assange show and taken up Assange's demented crusade against the United States. Assange claims that he supports transparency and press freedoms, yet he has sought refuge in the embassy of a nation that actively censors the press and is a presenter on Vladimir Putin's Russia Today propaganda channel. How many journalists has Putin jailed and assassinated? Look for Assange to go on an anti-American rampage in the press to please his Kremlin masters.

Still, there was widespread sympathy for Private Manning from his peers in the online community. Jacob Appelbaum, a developer and spokesman for the Tor project, which allows users to browse the Web anonymously, called Private Manning's solitary detention and court-martial “Manning's torture and show trial.”

Mr. Appelbaum, who was interviewed by Mr. Assange, the Wikileaks founder, for a talk show broadcast on “Russia Today,” also drew attention to comments posted on Twitter by supporters of Private Manning who compared his prosecution to the actions of the notorious East German secret police and noted that Ron Paul recently called the soldier more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than President Obama.

A complete transcript of the verdict was posted online later by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, whose board members include: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers; Xeni Jardin, who reported from Fort Meade for Boing Boing; and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who recently revealed the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance program based on documents leaked to them by Edward Snowden.

Xeni Jardin, reporting on the trial from Fort Meade for Boing Boing, notes that while Private Manning was cleared of the most serious charge, he still faces a lengthy prison term at the conclusion of his sentencing hearing, which begins on Wednesday.

The independent journalist Alexa O'Brien, also reporting from Fort Meade, calculates that the prison term could be up to 136 years.

Ms. O'Brien, who is open about her sympathy for Private Manning, later posted a link to details of the verdict in a press release from the military.

Wikileaks expressed horror at the potential sentence.