Today’s verdict in the trial of Private First Class Bradley Manning is an important benchmark in the ongoing debate over the handling of secret information.
The military court found Manning guilty of nearly all the charges and specifications against him, but not guilty of arguably the most serious charge, aiding the enemy. All of this was in relation to Manning’s admitted release of thousands of classified documents to Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks website.
Manning held a Top Secret clearance as a tactical-level intelligence analyst on duty in Iraq. He received this after a rigorous background investigation, including a polygraph examination. Before being granted access to classified documents, he also signed numerous non-disclosure agreements that enumerated the punishments for violating military regulations if the clearance holder gave classified documents to personnel who were not cleared to see them. None of this was unclear or fuzzy in any way.
Manning’s theft of a huge number of documents make him the most egregious spy in U.S. history, if one were to go by volume alone. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen are probably worse, as their actions resulted in known deaths of agents, and Edward Snowden may turn out to have done more damage, but Manning takes the cake for sheer number of documents.
After admitting he took the documents, Manning claimed he did it to save lives and actually did not think he would harm anyone. He also asserted that he screened what he gave away to ensure no one would be in danger. There is no way Manning could have possibly read and evaluated all the documents he stole and gave to WikiLeaks. The numbers are just too staggering.
Manning should not be seen as a hero or even a whistleblower. He violated the law and misused classified information. Regardless of his intent, this is indisputable.
This verdict should act as a warning to anyone who thinks that he or she alone is the ultimate judge of right and wrong. Particularly for the military, this is a seminal event. It confirms a major component of good order and discipline. The military cannot function properly if every service member thinks he can disobey rules, regulations, and orders with no expectation of adverse consequences.
The case will now proceed to the sentencing phase. If the military judge awards a punishment of more than one year’s confinement or a discharge from the service—both highly likely—the case will be reviewed by the convening authority and the military appellate courts.