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 against him, and his motivations — whatever they were — 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 Mr. Manning faced and one that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
Mr. Manning has become a cause célèbre for some who see him as a courageous whistleblower who soured on the Iraq war and sought to expose government wrongdoing. He has frequently been compared to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg — including by Mr. Ellsberg himself. Indeed, some of the information Mr. Manning handed over — particularly a video showing the killing of reporters in Iraq by an U.S. helicopter gunship — cast a harsh but illuminating light on the consequences of American policy.
But the case for Mr. 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 Mr. Ellsberg's opinion, Mr. Manning is no Daniel Ellsberg either. Mr. 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. (He escaped punishment because the Nixon administration abused its power in seeking to discredit him.)
Mr. 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. He may have intended to expose government wrongdoing, but what he really accomplished was to serve Wikileaks' militant anti-secrecy agenda.
That said, the government's contention that Mr. Manning's actions harmed national security and aided the enemy were overblown. The fact that Osama bin Laden reportedly had some of the information Mr. Manning supplied does not prove that it provided material assistance to an enemy. 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.
Wikileaks responded to the court decision by fretting that it created "a very serious new precedent for leaking information to the press." That's not quite right; the serious new precedents were the Obama administration's recent efforts at surveillance on journalists at the Associated Press and Fox News. Those who leak classified information have always taken a chance in doing so. What makes a true whistleblower courageous is the willingness to risk the consequences of breaking the law in the service of the higher good. We venerate civil disobedience in the service of conscience, but we still hold people accountable for it.
There's no question that the Obama administration has been unusually zealous in doing so. It has pursued more leak investigations than any of its predecessors and has sought punishments disproportionate to the alleged crimes. Colonel Lind's decision to reject the aiding-the-enemy charge was an important one in maintaining the delicate balance between security and the freedom of the press. Such an effort by the government was unprecedented and could have made almost any leak of classified information a potential capital offense.
Whether justice will ultimately be served in the case of Private Manning will depend on the sentencing, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning. Private 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. Colonel 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 Mr. 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.