Chief foreign correspondent Paul McGeough analyses the significance of the Bradley Manning verdict and the potential impacts on government transparency and media freedom.
A US military court martial on Tuesday found Bradley Manning not guilty on a lock-up-for-life charge of aiding the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
It was a significant legal win, but a pyrrhic victory in terms of Manning's fate.
Sitting in a high security court at a sprawling US military base, Judge Colonel Denise Lind, convicted the 25-year-old soldier on five charges of espionage, five of theft, one of computer fraud and a series of other military wrong-doings – verdicts on which he collectively faces up to 136 years in jail.
Guilty: Bradley Manning is escorted out of court after the verdict. Photo: Reuters
Reducing her findings to a series of bald one-liners in legalese, the judge said her detailed reasoning would be released later and Manning's sentencing hearing, likely to be a protracted affair, is to begin on Wednesday morning, US time.
Manning, who leaked the documents while serving in Iraq, seemed relaxed on arriving at court. But he tensed up on the judge's arrival on the bench, revealing no sign of emotion as the "guilty" verdicts piled up.
As part of a broad-brush campaign against leaks which it says are a threat to national security, the Obama administration set out to use Manning's trial as a warning to other would-be leakers, investing most of its prosecutorial efforts in pursuing the "aiding the enemy" charge for the first time in a leak case.
Support: protests were held outside court. Photo: Reuters
In rejecting an early plea in which Manning admitted enough of the charges against him to be put away for as long as 20 years, the administration cast him as an attention-seeking traitor with "general evil intent, and not the well-intentioned, if naive humanist portrayed by his defence lawyers."
The leaks included a mountain of reports and other documents on the progress of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which the prosecution argued had been access online by Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement.
Hailed in some quarters as a whistleblower and elsewhere as an anarchist, he also leaked controversial videos of airstrikes in which civilians died and a series of dossiers on being held without trial at Guantanamo.
The administration's resort to the very elastic "aiding the enemy" tactic has cast a pall over newsrooms, but the implication of the court's not-guilty verdict on that charge cannot be reckoned in the absence of the judge's reasoning.
But the decisions were described as a "very scary precedent," by Elizabeth Goitein, a security specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
She told reporters: "This is an historic verdict – Manning is one of very few people ever charged under the Espionage Act for leaks to the media ... Despite the lack of any evidence that he intended any harm to the US, Manning faces decades in prison."
WikiLeaks, which became a global household name by dint of the Manning leaks, denounced the verdicts as "dangerous national security extremism from the Obama administration".
The verdicts were heard in silence by Manning supporters, some wearing "truth" T-shirts, who were warned from the bench that any outbursts would see them thrown out.
A 25-year-old former military intelligence analyst who has been in detention for three years, Manning admitted to leaking hundreds of thousands of classified US documents to the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy organisation.
Explaining his guilty plea to some of the charges earlier this year, Manning told the court that the material he leaked has "upset" or "disturbed" him, but he did not believe that its release would harm the US. His take was that these were "old" documents that referred to circumstances that had changed or ended.
He had turned to WikiLeaks after The New York Times had failed to respond to a voicemail he had left.
Under US military law any guilty decision for which the defendant is jailed for more than six months or is punitively discharged is automatically appealed to the Army Court of Criminal Appeal.
Manning did not testify during the trial in which the judge sat in the absence of a jury – at Manning's request.