Bradley Manning faces a sentence of up to 130 years in prison and civil rights groups accuse the U.S. government of seeking to intimidate future whistleblowers

Civil rights groups accused the U.S. government of seeking to intimidate future whistleblowers after the Army private Bradley Manning was convicted by a military court of most of the charges against him for passing the biggest cache of state secrets in history to WikiLeaks.

Although he was found not guilty of the most serious charge, “aiding the enemy”, Manning faces a sentence of up to 130 years in prison for several violations of the Espionage Act.

The military judge in Fort Meade, Maryland, handed down a tough verdict that left little room for celebration. Colonel Denise Lind used curt and pointed language, repeating “Guilty” over and over, as the reality of a prolonged prison sentence for Manning dawned. He has already spent three years in detention.

Among the few moments of relief for Manning were Col. Lind’s decision to avoid setting a precedent by applying the swingeing “aiding the enemy” charge to an official leaker, and the judge’s decision to find Manning not guilty of having leaked an encrypted copy of a video of a U.S. air strike in the Farah province of Afghanistan in which many civilians died. Manning’s defence team had argued vociferously that he was not the source of that video, though the soldier did admit to later disclosure of an unencrypted version of the video and related documents.

Col. Lind also accepted Manning’s version of several of the key dates in the WikiLeaks disclosures, and took some of the edge from other less serious charges. But the overriding toughness of the verdict remains: the soldier was found guilty in their entirety of 17 out of the 22 counts against him, and of an amended version of four others.

Manning was also found guilty of “wrongfully and wantonly” causing to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the U.S., “having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy”. That guilty ruling could still have wide ramifications for news organisations working on investigations relating to U.S. national security.

The verdict was condemned by human rights campaigners. Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, said: “The government’s priorities are upside down. The U.S. government has refused to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes under international law despite overwhelming evidence.

“Yet they decided to prosecute Manning who it seems was trying to do the right thing — reveal credible evidence of unlawful behaviour by the government. You investigate and prosecute those who destroy the credibility of the government by engaging in acts such as torture which are prohibited under the U.S. constitution and in international law.”

By passing to WikiLeaks more than 700,000 documents, Manning became the first mass digital leaker in history, opening a whole new chapter in the age-old tug-of-war between government secrecy and the public’s right to information in a democracy. The Guardian was one of a number of international media organisations to publish stories based on the documents.

Ben Wizner, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “While we’re relieved that Mr. Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

“Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information — which carry significant punishment — it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.” WikiLeaks described his conviction on Twitter as “dangerous national security extremism from the Obama administration”.

In a statement, Manning’s family expressed “deep thanks” to his civilian lawyer, David Coombs, who has worked on the case for three years. They added: “While we are obviously disappointed in today’s verdicts, we are happy that Judge Lind agreed with us that Brad never intended to help America’s enemies in any way. Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform.”

Bleak prospects

Once the counts are added up, the prospects for the Manning are bleak. Barring reduction of sentence for mitigation, which becomes the subject of another mini-trial dedicated to sentencing that starts on Wednesday, Manning will face a substantial chunk of his adult life in military custody.

He has already spent 1,157 days in detention since his arrest in May 2010 — most recently in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas — which will be deducted from his eventual sentence. A further 112 days will be taken off the sentence as part of a pre-trial ruling in which Col. Lind compensated him for the excessively harsh treatment he endured at the Quantico marine base in Virginia between July 2010 and April 2011. He was kept on suicide watch for long stretches despite expert opinion from military psychiatrists who deemed him to be at low risk of self-harm, and at one point was forced to strip naked at night in conditions that the U.N. denounced as a form of torture.

Col. Lind has indicated that she will go straight into the sentencing phase of the trial, in which both defence and prosecution lawyers will call new witnesses. This is being seen as the critical stage of the trial for Manning’s defence: the soldier admitted months ago to being the source of the WikiLeaks disclosures, and much of the defence strategy has been focused on attempting to reduce his sentence through mitigation.

With that in mind, the soldier’s main counsel, Mr. Coombs, is likely to present evidence during the sentencing phase that Manning was in a fragile emotional state at the time he began leaking and was struggling with issues over his sexuality. In pre-trial hearings, the defence has argued that despite his at times erratic behaviour, the accused was offered very little support or counselling from his superiors at Forward Operating Base Hammer outside Baghdad.

Among those who will also be closely analysing the verdict are Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has disclosed the existence of secret government dragnets of the phone records of millions of Americans, who has indicated that the treatment of Manning was one reason for his decision to seek asylum in another country rather than face similar aggressive prosecution in America.

Another party that will be intimately engaged with the verdict is WikiLeaks, and its founder, Julian Assange. They have been the subject of a secret grand jury investigation in Virginia that has been looking into whether to prosecute them for their role in the Manning disclosures. — © Guardian News & Media 2013