Soldier faces charge of ‘aiding the enemy’ by downloading and leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning faces a maximum sentence of life in military custody with no chance of parole. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The trial of Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked a trove of state secrets to WikiLeaks, could set an ominous precedent that will chill freedom of speech and turn the internet into a danger zone, legal experts have warned.

Of the 21 counts faced by the army private on Monday, at his trial at Fort Meade in Maryland, by far the most serious is that he knowingly gave intelligence information to al-Qaida by transmitting hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the open information website WikiLeaks. The leaked disclosures were first published by the Guardian and allied international newspapers.

Manning is accused of “aiding the enemy”, in violation of Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. By indirectly unleashing a torrent of secrets onto the internet, the prosecution alleges, he in effect made it available to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, for them to inflict injury on the US.

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be the foremost liberal authority on constitutional law in the US and who taught the subject to President Barack Obama, told the Guardian that the charge could set a worrying precedent. He said: “Charging any individual with the extremely grave offense of ‘aiding the enemy’ on the basis of nothing beyond the fact that the individual posted leaked information on the web and thereby ‘knowingly gave intelligence information’ to whoever could gain access to it there, does indeed seem to break dangerous new ground.”

Tribe, who advised the department of justice in Obama’s first term, added that the trial could have “far-reaching consequences for chilling freedom of speech and rendering the internet a hazardous environment, well beyond any demonstrable national security interest.”

“Aiding the enemy” carries the death penalty. Though the US government has indicated it will not seek that ultimate punishment, Manning still faces a maximum sentence of life in military custody with no chance of parole.

Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 was subjected to an aborted trial for leaking the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War to the New York Times, said that the Manning prosecution was far tougher than anything that he had endured.

“This is part of Obama’s overall policy of criminalising investigative reporting on national security,” he said. “If the government has its way, it will become very hard in future to expose official corruption or disclose information in the public interest other than leaks made by the administration itself.”

Manning’s trial, which is slated to last three months, opens against a backdrop of mounting unease about the increasingly aggressive stance the US government is taking against official leakers. The Obama administration has launched six prosecutions under the Espionage Act, twice as many as all previous presidencies combined, of which only Manning’s has gone to trial.

The Department of Justice is already under fire for its controversial secret seizures of phone records of Associated Press reporters and of a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, investigating North Korean nuclear tests.

bradley manning trial A demonstration in support of Bradley Manning at Fort Meade in Maryland. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

 

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