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Manning case raises worries about chilling effect

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Manning faces more than 100 years in prison (AP/Patrick Semansky)

New York, July 30, 2013--Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, whose leak of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks sparked a military court-martial that raised alarms about the chilling effect on the press, was convicted today on six counts of violating the Espionage Act, along with theft and other charges, but was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, according to news reports. The case has become emblematic of U.S. authorities' aggressive crackdown on leaks of secret information.

"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, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "This aggressive prosecution has sent a clear message to would-be leakers."

Manning was arrested in June 2010 and charged two years later with more than 20 offenses, including charges of violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy, in connection with the 2009 leak of hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

The leaked material included Afghan and Iraq war logs, diplomatic cables, and video footage of an airstrike that killed about a dozen Iraqis in eastern Baghdad, including Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his assistant, Saeed Chmagh. Manning pleaded guilty in February to 10 of the lesser charges, but military prosecutors chose to pursue convictions at court-martial on the more serious offenses.

The 1917 Espionage Act criminalizes the "communication" of national defense or classified intelligence information with intent to harm the United States. Military prosecutors also argued that Manning aided the enemy because he knew Al-Qaeda could access the leaked documents via the Internet. Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who testified in Manning's defense, has argued that a conviction on the latter charge would set a precedent in which anyone who leaked sensitive information to the press could be accused of aiding the enemy, an offense punishable by death.

U.S. authorities in the Obama administration have aggressively gone after officials who leak classified information to the press, charging seven under the Espionage Act, which is more than double the number of all previous administrations combined. Manning is the first of that group to be convicted at trial under the act--three pleaded guilty to leak-related charges--and he was the only one to be charged with aiding the enemy, a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The sentencing phase will begin tomorrow before the judge, Col. Denise Lind, with Manning facing more than 100 years in prison. 

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