We think the military judge sitting in judgment of Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking military documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks got her decision exactly right.
Col. Denise Lind found Manning guilty of most of the lesser charges against him, but acquitted him of the more serious charge of aiding U.S. enemies. The decision means Manning will likely serve significant jail time, but he avoided the life without possibility of parole sentence that accompanies the aiding-enemies charge.
Manning had already agreed to plead guilty to many of the lesser charges, but his attorney had fought the aiding charge. He was right to do so and we are pleased that the judge agreed.
A guilty verdict on that charge would have set a horrible precedent. Leaking documents to the news media or the Internet is not acting in concert with America's foes. And claiming that it is has a chilling effect on potential government whistle-blowers.
The verdict was a setback for the Obama administration, which has been seeking clear victory in its campaign to discourage government leaks.
In this case there was little doubt that Manning leaked the more than 700,000 pages of classified documents to WikiLeaks and that doing so violated his oath. WikiLeaks then posted the sensitive material online.
We were troubled from the beginning that the government chose to pursue the case under a prosecution theory that had not been used successfully since the Civil War.
Prosecutors argued that the 25-year-old Manning betrayed his oath and his country, which is covered by the lesser charges, but also argued that he had assisted al-Qaida because the terrorist group could access secret material once WikiLeaks posted it.
That theory has the potential to significantly thwart press and public scrutiny of the military.
It was Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, a Union soldier, who was last successfully prosecuted for aiding the enemy through a leak to a publication. Vanderwater was found guilty of leaking a Union roster to an Alexandria, Va. newspaper. He was dishonorably discharged and served a three-month sentence.
The judge's decision came at the end of an 8-week trial in which the prosecution and defense battled to shape Manning's image. Prosecutors cast him as a dangerous loose cannon who had caused profound damage.
Maj. Ashden Fein, a military prosecutor, said is his closing argument that Manning had disregarded the "sensitivity" of the material he leaked and "decided to release it to a bunch of anti-government activists and anarchists to achieve maximum exposure, and advance his personal quest for notoriety."
Defense attorney David Combs repeatedly portrayed Manning as "well-intentioned" and simply naive. He said Manning was motivated by the violence in Iraq and wanted to "spark a worldwide discussion."
He certainly accomplished that. Now he must pay the price for choosing that path.