As a member of our armed forces, Bradley Manning assumed a special responsibility to protect classified information, a responsibility he abdicated when he turned over a vast quantity of classified government documents to Wikileaks. His conviction on charges under the Espionage Act is yet another vindication of the rule of law in the contentious arena of national-security leaks. Earlier this year, Manning pleaded guilty to a series of lesser charges that could bring him 20 years in prison. The prosecution pressed ahead with the remaining counts, including the controversial one of “aiding the enemy” on which Manning was today acquitted.
The government’s theory on this last count, that the enemy — al-Qaeda — was aided because, like the rest of the world, it was able to read the classified documents Manning provided to Wikileaks, seemed to me be an unwise stretch of the law with a chain of undesirable implications.
For better and for worse, classified information leaks out of Washington’s national-security machinery on a daily basis. Our newspapers are full of stories based upon leaks and much of what we know about American foreign policy is the result of these leaks. While some leaks — of necessary secrets — can endanger the country, many other leaks — of unnecessary secrets, of which our government has a wealth — have few adverse consequences at all. If routine leaking is turned into a capital crime — which is the direction suggested by the aiding the enemy charge — our understanding of what our government is doing around the world would have suffered a significant blow. The judge’s decision today strikes me as an appropriate balance that, if matched by an appropriate sentence, will meet the twin demands of deterrence and justice.
— Gabriel Schoenfeld is author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.