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Column: A moderate verdict

Reporters and leakers all over Washington, D.C., are heaving a sigh of relief: A military judge has found Pvt. Bradley Manning not guilty of "aiding the enemy."

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Manning will probably still be spending at least a couple of decades in prison for 19 other crimes, but his conviction on most of those charges had been expected; he'd already pled guilty to some of them. But "aiding the enemy" was the most serious accusation.

It's labeled a capital crime; although prosecutors were not seeking the death penalty in this instance. He would have been put behind bars for life. More broadly, a guilty verdict on the charge of aiding the enemy would have turned the climate for investigative journalism — already as tense as it has been for many years — into a toxic dust cloud.

Prosecutors had argued during the trial that the documents Manning supplied in 2010 to WikiLeaks — which, in turn, provided them to the New York Times and other publications — were read by Osama bin Laden, who took comfort from them. Therefore, they contended, Manning had aided the enemy.

It was an explosive argument. Few officers or enlisted personnel had ever been tried for "aiding the enemy" — codified at Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — and none had been convicted on that charge merely for leaking classified documents to a news agency (or, in WikiLeaks' unusual case, an intermediary to news agencies).

Had the judge accepted the argument and found Manning guilty of the broad new charge, the implications would have been profound. By such a verdict's logic, the New Yorker could have been accused of aiding the enemy for publishing Seymour Hersh's article about the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Hersh's intention may have been to call attention to war crimes being committed by U.S. officers in Iraq, but a prosecutor could certainly have argued that the story served al-Qaida's interests; and it's certainly true that the revelations over Abu Ghraib were used as recruitment tools by jihadists worldwide.

In fact, by this logic, any published criticism of an American war, or of U.S. foreign policy generally, could be interpreted as "aiding the enemy" if copies were found in enemy hands. For that matter, news reports of Southern racism in the 1950s could have been prosecuted on those grounds because the Soviet Union — the enemy in the era's Cold War — cited those reports in its anti-American propaganda campaigns, especially in the developing world.

It may be that the prosecutor overreached. In his summary remarks, he lambasted Manning as not only a leaker, a thief, a security threat and all the rest, but also a "traitor." Whatever one thinks of Manning and his motives, this went too far.

Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution states: "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." One could make a stretch and claim that Manning's actions gave aid and comfort to some enemies; but there's no way that he could be seen as "adhering" to enemies or as "levying war" (which later Supreme Court decisions have interpreted to mean physically waging war against the United States).

Whether what Manning did was right or wrong in the broader book of morality, it did violate military law. He knew that; and, in his plea, he accepted responsibility for it, accepted his fate, but always insisted that he had no intention to aid the enemy. The military court's assent on that point was wise, beneficial for free speech, and for the country.

© 2013 Slate

Column: A moderate verdict 07/31/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 5:15pm]

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