Finding balance in curious case of Bradley Manning

Aug 1, 2013 The Baltimore Sun

There was no question that Pfc. Bradley Manning broke the law when he released hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. He admitted as much in pleading guilty to a number of the lesser charges, and his motivations and his evident naivete didn't change that fact.

Nonetheless, the case against him was a vexing one. It was never clear that his actions harmed national security in the way the Obama administration claimed, and his mistreatment during a portion of the time he has been held in custody was deplorable. Under the circumstances, Army Col. Denise Lind, the military judge who presided over his case, appears to have found a reasonable middle ground in finding him guilty of several espionage charges but not of aiding the enemy, the most serious count Manning faced.

Manning has become a cause celebre for some who see him as a courageous whistleblower who sought to expose government wrongdoing. He has frequently been compared to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg.

But the case for Manning's nobility is far from clear cut. He may now look favorable compared to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, holed up in Moscow with laptops full of secrets and a pawn of foreign powers who wish America ill. But with all due respect to Ellsberg's opinion, Manning is no Ellsberg either. Ellsberg released documents showing a years-long campaign of lies by the American government to its own people about the Vietnam War. His decision to release the documents was careful and calculated, and when the time came, he turned himself in to face trial.

Manning, on the other hand, downloaded hundreds of thousands of combat assessments and diplomatic cables and handed them over to WikiLeaks. His attorneys claim that he exercised discretion in what he released, choosing among the vast array of information available to him as an Army intelligence analyst. But the volume of classified materials involved was so large that he cannot possibly have had any idea what most of it contained.

That said, the government's contention that Manning's actions harmed national security and aided the enemy were overblown. Some of the leaked documents were embarrassing for the United States and may have made diplomacy more challenging, but they appear not to have had anything close to the impact on geopolitics that Mr. Snowden's revelations have.

Whether justice will ultimately be served will depend on the sentencing. Manning's supporters argue that he has been punished enough already, but the charges he has now been convicted of carry maximum total penalties of well more than 100 years in prison. Lind will hear testimony from both sides during the sentencing phase, and in her decision, she would do well to weigh the government's scant evidence of actual harm that resulted from the leaks against Manning's youth and troubled background. In a muddled and messy case, she now has the chance to display the wisdom and discretion that has been lacking on all sides so far.

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