Yesterday, Col. Denise Lind, the military judge presiding over the Bradley Manning case at Fort Meade, acquitted Manning of the charge of aiding the enemy. The charge was the most serious that Manning faced, and almost certainly would have led to life in a military prison. For those of you unfamiliar with Bradley Manning, he is the Private First Class who was on trial for releasing the data published by Julian Assange on Wikileaks. Because of that, the case has received a great deal of attention from both the media and human rights groups who are attempting to find a balance between government secrecy, transparency, and civil liberties.
Bradley Manning’s acquittal on this charge is not exactly surprising given that it was unprecedented for the government to bring such a charge in a leak case. But still, the government’s argument made some sense if you look at the letter of the law. Luckily, common sense seems to have prevailed. I don’t believe (and I certainly don’t think the government could prove) that he intended to aid the enemy, and a vast majority of the information he leaked probably did not aid al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in any way. On top of that, there seems to be a lot of questions regarding whether or not most of the information should have been classified in the first place.
That’s not to say that Bradley Manning’s actions weren’t worthy of punishment. Any way you look at it, it’s probably not a good policy to allow military personnel with security clearance to release classified information. But that’s where the other charges come into play. Manning is by no means off the hook. Yes, he beat the most serious and highly publicized charge against him, but he was still convicted of a myriad of other charges. Manning was still convicted of six violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as most of the other 22 charges lodged against him (10 of which he has already plead guilty to). He faces a maximum of 136 years in prison, although he probably won’t receive the maximum sentence due to the plea bargain I mentioned. Regardless, it’ll probably be pretty hefty.
A statement put out by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), both members of the House Intelligence Committee, was cautiously optimistic but also a little confusing to me. Here it is:
“Justice has been served today. PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes. There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security. The House Intelligence Committee continues to work with the Intelligence Community to improve the security of classified information and to put in place better mechanisms to detect individuals who abuse their access to sensitive information.”
My confusion here comes from their claim that they are working hard toward securing classified information and our national security. It seems to me like their plan is to bring the hammer down on anyone like Bradley Manning who leaks information to deter others from doing the same. I know that leaking classified information is different than murder in that it’s usually a planned, calculated act. The leaker usually knows there’s a good chance he might get caught, so I can see the logic behind a deterrence theory argument. But I highly doubt anyone planning to pull a Bradley Manning-esque stunt doesn’t already know that the crime carries a serious penalty.
Maybe instead of throwing the book at Bradley Manning, who seems to have had serious concerns about the military’s policies, we should take a look at overhauling our classification systems. And maybe we shouldn’t be handing out security clearances like candy. Politicians should absolutely go after people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Leaking government secrets should be punished. But the politicians should at least own up to the fact that this is partially their fault. If we start paying attention to what we classify and who we give security clearance to, we won’t find ourselves in these situations.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research