Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who gave hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents to WikiLeaks, was found guilty yesterday by a military judge of more than a dozen crimes, including espionage. But Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge: “aiding the enemy.” The acquittal, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains, is good news for journalists whose leak-based reports, under the government’s rationale, would have been prosecutable as capital crimes. It’s also good news for freedom, human rights, and common sense. The case for convicting Manning of aiding the enemy was preposterous.
Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, "aiding the enemy," applies to anyone who “knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly.” Manning didn’t harbor, protect, communicate with, or give intelligence directly to al-Qaida or any other sworn enemy. So the government went after him for providing intelligence indirectly, through WikiLeaks.
You can call Manning a reckless, criminal, catastrophic idiot—and I do—but there’s no evidence that he was trying to help anybody in particular. He didn’t search for files that would be useful to specific governments. He talked about releasing secrets to the whole world. Given the sheer volume of what he downloaded and released—more than 700,000 documents—“there is absolutely no way he even knew what he was giving to WikiLeaks,” prosecutors noted. “Instead, he learned the exact details of what he compromised [at] the same time as the public and the enemy.”
Everything in the record suggests Manning was trying to inform the global public. He “knew that WikiLeaks, and specifically Julian Assange, considered themselves the first intelligence agency for the general public,” said the prosecution. Assange, the head of Wikileaks, told Manning that his organization was “less parochial than any Government intelligence agencies. … It has no commercial or national interests at heart. It is only interested in the revelation of the truth.” Manning, as the prosecution pointed out, “acknowledged that, quote, could have sold the information to Russia and China but chose not to because it's public data. And because another state would take advantage of the information and try to get some edge.”
How, then, did the government conclude that Manning’s behavior amounted to “aiding the enemy”? By making two inane arguments: that the world includes our enemies, and that they use the Internet.
According to the prosecution—and these are all quotes from the trial transcript, courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation—“WikiLeaks was merely the platform which Pfc. Manning used to ensure all the information was available for the world, including the enemies of the United States.” He knew WikiLeaks “would release it for the world to access, and he knew the world included the enemies of the United States.” Where did Manning learn this shocking fact? In high-level military training. “The public included the enemy, and he knew that, Your Honor, as an intelligence analyst,” said the prosecution. He “knew the entire world included the enemy, from his training.”
By the government’s reasoning, this meant treason. “Worldwide distribution, that was his goal. Worldwide includes the enemy—Article 104.” Manning “was a traitor” who delivered intelligence to the enemy by taking “deliberate steps to ensure they, along with the world, received all of it.” He wanted “the whole world, including al-Qaida and al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, to see everything he compromised, and he knew they would. That, Your Honor, is the general evil intent, and that is aiding the enemy by giving intelligence.”
But our enemies don’t merely exist. They also use the Internet. In their closing arguments, prosecutors cited “an overwhelming amount of evidence that Pfc. Manning knew that the enemy uses the Internet to gather intelligence.” In “Advanced Individual Training,” he received “lessons that the enemy used the internet.” He also learned from “intelligence products of the enemy, including AQAP … that terrorists use the Internet.” He released national secrets to WikiLeaks, “all this while knowing, Your Honor, that our enemies, the terrorists, are using the Internet.”
You could argue that Manning had nothing to do with the latter half of this process: terrorists downloading what’s publicly available. But that would just expose your naivete about how the Internet works. It’s subtle and pernicious. According to the government, “Pfc. Manning knew the information’s existence on the Internet would actively encourage our nation's enemy to gather and data-mine the information.” Public disclosure is active encouragement.
This rationale wouldn’t just apply to al-Qaida. It would define any disclosure, at any time, as aiding the enemy, so long as enemies exist. The United States “faces enemies worldwide and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan,” prosecutors argued. “Pfc. Manning provided any enemy of the United States, worldwide, this data.” He knew “that disclosure of the information on the Internet must be avoided … because there are many enemies, and it's a free and open society.”
The government’s case, in short, was that disclosure of classified information by a soldier who explicitly aims to inform the whole world, to an agency that explicitly aims to inform the whole world, in a medium that is accessed by the whole world, amounts to aiding the enemy, a crime punishable by death. I can think of many countries that would enthusiastically enforce such a policy. Let’s not be one of them.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: