The verdict against Bradley Manning leaves troubling questions about the Obama administration’s continuing belligerence not just towards free journalism but freedom itself

When the verdict was announced in the trial of army intelligence officer Bradley Manning last week, it became clear that it was a dangerous business to draw the world’s attention to the darker side of U.S. military and diplomatic engagement in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

A few rows behind me in the military courtroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, a gaggle of Manning supporters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “truth” sat in stunned silence as Judge Denise Lind read out the word “guilty” several times.

Of the 22 charges he faced. Mr. Manning was convicted on 17, six of which were under the 1917 Espionage Act. That leaves him with a potential 136-year term in jail. The sentence is to be pronounced later this month.

However, despite the Obama administration’s breathtakingly aggressive prosecution of Mr. Manning for passing on 7,50,000 war logs, diplomatic cables and other classified government information to WikiLeaks, the judge found the soldier not guilty on two important counts.

The first relates to the serious allegation that he “aided the enemy,” for all practical purposes al-Qaeda, and the second, to the allegation that he leaked an encrypted copy of a damning video of the U.S. military conducting a lethal aerial attack in Afghanistan’s Farah province, in which many civilians were killed.

In finding Mr. Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy — in other words exonerating him of treason punishable by death — Judge Lind showed the forbearance to not give in to pressure to fuel what is now widely acknowledged as the Obama administration’s “War on Leaks.”

Administration’s war

This war, carried out in the shadows of well-crafted legal protections — and not dissimilar in that regard to the secrecy-shrouded drone assassination programme on distant shores — has recently spilled media blood by applying gag orders, telephone record taps, defamation-type litigation and behind the scenes bullying.

The intensity of the White House’s battle against critics of surveillance became evident in May, when the Associated Press’s Chief Executive, Gary Pruitt, penned a strongly-worded letter to Attorney-General Eric Holder saying that he objected to the “massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities” of the AP.

He specifically referenced the Justice Department’s secret review of phone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines. Mr. Holder defended that surveillance on the grounds of endangering national security.

Since that episode, the U.S. House of Representatives opened a perjury inquiry against Mr. Holder to examine whether he fudged a statement to Congress about the Obama administration’s proclivity to press criminal charges against whistle-blowers.

Specifically, the House demanded to know whether Mr. Holder tried to prosecute Fox News journalist James Rosen for publishing classified information in a 2009 report on Iran, going so far as to label Mr. Rosen a potential “co-conspirator” in a bid to get court approval for surveillance.

In the ongoing saga of the prosecution — it is tempting to call it persecution — of former Central Intelligence Agency agent Jeffrey Sterling, charged with sharing classified information with The New York Times journalist James Risen, the government offered a similar logic.

The Justice Department has argued that leaks to the press were even “more pernicious” than true espionage involving the sale of secrets to enemies because not one, but “every foreign adversary stood to benefit from the defendant's unauthorised disclosure.” According to the Times, Mr. Risen has vowed to go to prison rather than testify about his sources.

More recently, the case of Edward Snowden, the former contractor to the National Security Agency (NSA) and the man behind the revelations on the NSA’s mass automated surveillance of Internet communications, has exposed the double standards of the U.S. government in dealing with leaks — fiercely prosecuting those that generate challenges to the surveillance state’s standard operating procedure and softly facilitating those that improve its public standing.

The deeper question that the administration is only grudgingly beginning to acknowledge, and not until Congress threatened to defund NSA spying programmes authorised by the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, is whether the legal checks and balances aimed at limiting government surveillance are sufficiently robust and transparent.

In this regard, both the verdict against Mr. Manning as well as the treatment meted out to him by the military since his May 2010 arrest leave troubling, unanswered questions about the Obama administration’s continuing belligerence towards not only free journalism in this country but freedom itself.

Judge Lind’s decision to hand out a guilty verdict under six Espionage Act charges has been described by numerous experts as a move that would have a “chilling effect” across the board and discourage future whistle-blowers who obtain classified documents that could expose illicit conduct in public offices.

Despite Mr. Manning admitting guilt to 10 lesser charges that carried a total of 20 years imprisonment, the government has also appeared keen to make an example of him and not permit him anything less than life imprisonment — this after he already endured 1,160 days of pretrial detention in a six-foot by 12-foot cell for months, deprived of sleep, forced to stand naked, and placed on suicide watch despite experts suggesting that was unnecessary.

No traitor

If Osama bin Laden’s intention behind the 9/11 attacks was to plunge the U.S. into a vicious cycle of paranoia fuelling the dilution of civil liberties and constitutional rights, it would appear that under Barack Obama’s reign, the dead terror chief’s cherished goals have been achieved.

The last hope for the return of genuine freedom of speech and the press, including a recasting of FISA, and Patriot Act-type provisions, may be the disenchantment of a growing minority of Americans who repudiate Mr. Obama’s counter-terrorism-based overreach. According to a Quinnipiac national poll released on August 1, American voters said 55-34 per cent that Mr. Snowden is a whistle-blower and not a traitor.

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