The Bradley Manning verdict may seem a victory of sorts for the defense — it’s certainly being treated that way in the mainstream media — but the decision handed down Tuesday by Court Marshal Judge Colonel Denise Lind is actually a devastating blow not only to Manning, who was convicted of unjustifiably serious charges brought by an aggressive administration seeking to make an example of him, but also to Internet activity in general and information-sharing in particular.
Judge Lind found the young Army private not guilty of the most serious charge he faced: “aiding the enemy”. But it was the most serious because he could have faced life imprisonment as a result. Now he faces a sentencing hearing on 17 charges of which he was convicted.
Much of the media reaction reflected relief:
“We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” Manning’s trial lawyer David Coombs told a press conference. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”
Or as Marcy Wheeler wrote in Salon: “But the big news — and very good news — is that Manning is innocent of the aiding the enemy charge. That ruling averted a potentially catastrophic effect on freedom of speech in this country.”
(image courtesy of the Bradley Manning Support Network)
The relief may be misguided. We have not averted a catastrophe; we have experienced one. Manning’s convictions include five counts of “espionage” under the 1917 Espionage Act and therein lies the poison. The logic of that espionage finding means that any of us could potentially be convicted of the very same crime if we were to publish anything on the Internet that the government considers “dangerous” to its functioning or activities.
Hand in hand with the recently-revealed system of surveillance that effectively models a police state, this verdict is spectacularly pernicious.