Analysis: Wikileaks verdict could discourage future whistleblowers
SAN FRANCISCO -- The first reaction among his supporters was elation -- Bradley Manning had been acquitted on the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.
But within minutes, the mood deflated as the man behind the largest array of leaks in US history was convicted on 20 of 22 espionage and theft charges, exposing him to some 136 years behind bars when the sentencing phase of the trial begins as early as Wednesday.
Most Twitter comments focused on the irony of Manning's conviction for exposing military actions that appear in direct contravention of US and international law.
"A Martian observer would helplessly conclude that exposing war crimes in this country is far worse than committing them," said one commentator on Twitter.
"#Manning not guilty of 'aiding enemy' but guilty of 20 other charges," said another. "Whistleblowers who expose war crimes face jail & war criminals run free."
Among the blanket condemnations of the verdict, a handful of twitterati voiced support for the judge's decision.
"Note to people in the military, do not supply Secret Documents in violation of your oath and expect no repercussions," one commentator argued.
However, Mike Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, said that Manning was only channeling information that should have been in the public domain anyway and "that it's a disheartening message to those trying to get discussions going on matters of public interest."
Beyond the personal price that Manning looks likely to pay, the verdict will have severe repercussions on freedom of information and freedom of the press, he said.
"It's hard not to draw the conclusion that the US government is trying to send a message that it will come down hard on whistleblowers," he told dpa.
But it won't work to deter future leakers or journalists, he added.
"At the end of the day when governments try to keep secret what should be public, this information will come out regardless of government attempts to suppress it. The age of secrets is on its way out," he said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists was less upbeat.
"While Manning was not convicted of the most serious charge, we're still concerned about the chilling effect on the press, especially on reporters covering national security issues," said Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director. "This aggressive prosecution has sent a clear message to would-be leakers."
Ben Wizner, of the American Civil Liberties Union, was also less hopeful, saying it seemed "clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future."
The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation -- which advocates for rights in the digital world -- warned that no member of the press or public interested in more transparency about the military "should rest easy with this verdict."
Wikileaks, which distributed the information released by Manning, called the verdict "a very serious new precedent for supplying information to the press."
But analysts on the other side of the fence said that the verdict should be followed by government attempts to tighten laws so as to restrict the flow of information from people like Manning and Edward Snowden, the technical consultant to the US National Security Agency who recently unveiled a secret US surveillance programme over private phone calls and emails.
"The administration is deadly serious about this," Eugene Fidell, a Yale Law School expert on military law told USA Today. "Manning was a wake-up call and so is Mr Snowden."
"It's even more important to prosecute those crimes," added Gary Barthel, a former Marine Corps staff judge advocate. "With technology it's so much easier to disseminate that information. The military, the government has to take a very strong stand on it."
By Andy Goldberg
©2013 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)
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