Without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people. That’s what this trial is really about
Thursday, Colonel Denise Lind, the judge in the Bradley Manning court martial, refused to dismiss the “aiding the enemy” charge. The decision is preliminary, and the judge could still moderate its effect if she finds Manning not guilty. But even if she ultimately acquits Manning, the decision will cast a long shadow on national security journalists and their sources.
First, this case is about national security journalism, not WikiLeaks. At Monday’s argument in preparation for Thursday’s ruling, the judge asked the prosecution to confirm: does it make any difference if it’s WikiLeaks or any other news organization: New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal? The prosecution answered: “No, it would not. It would not potentially make a difference.”
Second, the decision establishes a chilling precedent: leaking classified documents to the these newspapers can by itself be legally sufficient to constitute the offense of “aiding the enemy”, if the leaker was sophisticated enough about intelligence and how the enemy uses the internet.
Thursday’s decision was preliminary and made under a standard that favors the prosecution’s interpretation of the facts. The judge must still make that ultimate decision on guilt based on all the evidence, including the defense, under the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
Although the decision is preliminary, it is critical as a matter of law because it accepts the prosecution’s extreme theory as legally sufficient. The prosecution’s case is that by leaking materials to the press, the source of classified materials is “communicating with the enemy” indirectly. The source gives materials to the journalist; the journalist publishes; the enemy reads the publication and, presto, the source is guilty of the offense of “aiding the enemy”. Manning is facing life imprisonment without parole for this offense.
The judge earlier held that “aiding the enemy” required that the leaker have “actual knowledge” that by handing materials over to a newspaper, he or she is giving it to “the enemy”; it is not enough that the source “should have known” that the enemy would access the materials. The critical question for Thursday’s holding was what evidence is enough, as a matter of law, to prove “actual knowledge”.