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Manning Faces Sentencing In Leak Case


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

We will soon learn what the future holds for Bradley Manning. The sentencing phase of his trial begins today. The Army private has been found guilty in the biggest leak of classified information in United States history. A military judge convicted Manning of violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property. But the 25-year-old was acquitted on the most serious charge he faced: aiding the enemy.

Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The case of the Army intelligence analyst who admitted passing information to the website WikiLeaks is already one of the longest and strangest in the history of the military justice system. Judge Denise Lind's verdict added another historic element, says Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale.

EUGENE FIDELL: If you look at it from a distance, what you see is the federal government trying its best to prosecute a very serious charge, possibly an aggressive charge, but still a very serious charge against a very low-ranking enlisted man, and the enlisted man prevailed.

JOHNSON: Manning won on the aiding the enemy charge, one that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life. As his lawyer, David Coombs, put it outside the courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland: We won the battle, now we need to go win the war.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said the aiding the enemy allegation could have struck a deadly blow to the First Amendment. Here's Assange on CNN earlier this week.


JULIAN ASSANGE: This is a really serious attack. It is the most serious attack that the administration is pursuing in its war against investigative journalism. It will be the end essentially of national security journalism in the United States.

JOHNSON: In a written statement after the verdict, Assange said the case remains Exhibit A for how the Obama administration's been silencing whistleblowers and weakening freedom of the press.

That doesn't sound right to Steven Aftergood, who studies secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: You know, most news outlets do not do what WikiLeaks did. News organizations report the news. What WikiLeaks was doing was transferring restricted government documents into the public domain.

JOHNSON: Documents such as sensitive diplomatic cables, secret field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and files of detainees at the Guantanamo prison. All of which the military judge found Manning had shared improperly, despite his oath to the U.S. government.

Today, the sentencing phase of Manning's case begins. It's a time when defense lawyer Coombs can introduce evidence of the soldier's motivations, such as trying to spark debate about foreign policy and civilian deaths, Coombs has argued.

Even with a three year reduction Manning will receive for time served and another credit of 100 days for his solitary confinement and other mistreatment in a military brig in Virginia, Manning still faces the possibility of decades in prison.

Aftergood, the secrecy expert, hopes for a different takeaway from the case.

AFTERGOOD: Too many of the documents that Manning released seemed to be either benign or positively in the public interest. And that's a sign that our rules for keeping secrets are out of whack and need to be corrected.

JOHNSON: Fidell, who teaches military law, says the controversies about transparency and government abuse in the Manning case could return to the spotlight if former NSA contractor Edward Snowden ever faces trial on Espionage Act charges.

FIDELL: Well, they go away for the time being. But pretty soon we're going to perhaps see Mr. Snowden being prosecuted - if he ever gets back into the federal government's hands - and maybe we'll be revisiting all of these issues again.

JOHNSON: The military judge has set out weeks to hear evidence before she sentences Bradley Manning. But even that won't mark the end of the prosecution, Fidell says.

FIDELL: But however long the trial takes, or the remaining phase of the trial, the case itself is going to be around for a good long while because it's going to go into appellate review and that could take years.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.