By Tom Ramstack
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) – As a military judge considered sentencing for convicted U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, prosecutors argued that his leaks of classified information to the WikiLeaks website changed the way the military allowed intelligence analysts to access data.
Manning, 25, on Tuesday escaped a life sentence with no parole at his court-martial when Judge Colonel Denise Lind acquitted him of aiding the enemy, the most serious of 21 criminal counts against him. But he still faces the possibility of 136 years in prison on 19 other charges.
The slightly built Army private first class was working as a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2010 when he was arrested and charged in the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history – a trove of 700,000 battlefield videos, diplomatic cables and other files.
Following Tuesday’s verdict, the court-martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, moved into the sentencing proceeding on Wednesday with arguments by military prosecutors and Manning’s lawyers.
A prosecutor, Major Ashden Fein, said Manning’s leaks “have impacted the entire system” for granting defense analysts access to classified information.
Manning’s attorneys were expected argue that the Army private was not trying to jeopardize U.S. national security. He did not testify during his trial or during the first day of his sentencing hearing.
The first prosecution witness, retired Brigadier General Robert Carr, said that allowing young analysts such as Manning to have access to classified information was “hugely important” to the U.S. military.
In a court martial that stretched over two months, military prosecutors had argued that Manning became a “traitor” to his country when he handed over files to the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website. The U.S. government charged that the breach put national security at risk. It also thrust WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange into the international spotlight.
Observers said the verdict could have “a chilling effect” on WikiLeaks by making potential sources of documents in the United States more wary about handing over secret information.
It could also encourage the United States to seek to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing the information.
Assange has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for over a year to avoid extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual assault. The activist says he fears Sweden might hand him over to U.S. authorities.
Army prosecutors contended during Manning’s court-martial that U.S. security was harmed when WikiLeaks published videos of a 2007 attack by an American Apache helicopter gunship in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff, diplomatic cables, and secret details on prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
Manning supporters who gathered at Fort Meade on Tuesday said they were relieved he had been acquitted of the most serious charge, but thought the sentence he could face was excessive.
“The remaining charges against him are still tantamount to life in prison,” said Nathan Fuller. “That’s still an outrage.”
The verdict was praised by two U.S. Congressmen – Representatives Michael Rogers, a Republican who chairs the House intelligence committee and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger, its ranking member.
“Justice has been served today. PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes,” they said in a statement.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool)