NORTHPORT, Michigan – There is a message in the Bradley Manning verdict that merits close reading by foreign governments, their courts and the journalists who report on them.
The message is that the press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution include protections for investigative journalists who report uncomfortable truths about the governance of the United States and those who are accountable for exercising the powers granted to them.
These protections hold firm, in both civilian and military courts, where Private Mannings’ court martial trial was held.
The government’s case against Manning, by charging that he “aided the enemy,” sought to establish a precedent that would have encouraged future courts, civilian and military, to find journalists investigating and reporting on government secrets guilty of “aiding the enemy” — a crime that could carry the death sentence.
The judge, Col. Denise Lind, rejected the government’s argument that Pvt. Manning “aided the enemy” by releasing hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
Col. Lind found him guilty for most of the remaining charges, including six counts of violating the Espionage Act, five of stealing government property, and one violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Each of those carries up to a 10-year sentence.
The trial was watched carefully in the US by journalists and media lawyers who were aware that if the government prevailed on the charge of “aiding the enemy,” that verdict could have broad consequences for journalists reporting about national security in the Internet era.
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who testified in Private Manning’s defense, was quoted as praising Col. Lind for making an “extremely important decision” that denied “the prosecution’s effort to launch the most dangerous assault on investigative journalism and the free press in the area of national security that we have seen in decades.”
The balance between the rights of journalists to freely pursue information and government’s commitment to national security has increasingly been in conflict during the Obama administration. Historically, the government hoards information in “secret” files and the press tries to pry out that information in the belief that it belongs to the public.
The Obama administration has been especially aggressive in seeking to prosecute journalists for reporting and publishing leaks revealing what the administration claimed was highly sensitive and confidential national security information. Instances of subpoenaing telephone records of reporters is highly unusual, historically, but seems to have become a commonplace in the current Department of Justice under Eric Holder.
For example, phone records of The Associated Press were seized based on a story the wire service distributed that was based on leaks. And a Fox News reporter was accused of violating the law for seeking confidential information from a State Department official.
This tension between press and government is healthy and reassuring, a strength of our constitutional form of government. Col. Lind’s rejection of the government’s argument that Pvt. Manning aided the enemy reinforces the ideals that set the US apart from other countries in providing judicial protection for a free press.
Contentious and unsettling as are the current disagreements between press and government in the US, where is the country that would not welcome a system where these differences could be debated peacefully in public, in the press and adjudicated in the courts?
Bob Giles is commentary editor of Global Post. He is a longtime newspaper editor and recently served as curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.