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Politics

Manning Supporters In Bay Area Welcome Acquittal On Most Serious Charge

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Bradley Manning. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Bradley Manning. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP/BCN) — Bay Area supporters of Bradley Manning appear to be relieved that the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst was acquitted on the most serious charge against him – aiding the enemy – which would have carried a potential life sentence.

An Oakland-based group that supports Manning held a rally in San Francisco Tuesday evening to celebrate the not-guilty verdict handed down on the key charge in his espionage trial.

Manning, who was accused of leaking classified information to the online group WikiLeaks, was found not guilty in military court of aiding the enemy, but was convicted of more than a dozen other counts including violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property.

While the aiding the enemy charge would have included a life sentence, Manning still faces a possible sentence of more than 100 years in prison for the other charges.

“We’re delighted that the aiding the enemy charge was thrown out,” said Jeff Paterson, project director at Oakland-based Courage to Resist. “It’s a great victory for us.”

The sentencing phase of the case begins Wednesday, and Paterson said his group is calling on the military court to release Manning with credit for time served rather than issue a stiff sentence.

Paterson said he expects Manning to take the stand during the hearing to “explain what his motives were,” while his defense attorneys “can argue the positive impacts the release of this information had on the general public.”

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internationally known online free-speech advocacy group, posted a statement on its website saying, “while it was a relief was that he was not convicted of the worst charge ‘aiding the enemy,’ the verdict remains deeply troubling.”

The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before reaching her decision in the case that drew worldwide attention as supporters hailed Manning as a whistleblower. The U.S. government called him an anarchist computer hacker and attention-seeking traitor.

Manning stood at attention, flanked by his attorneys, as the judge read her verdicts at Fort Meade, Maryland. He appeared not to react, though his attorney, David Coombs, smiled faintly when he heard not guilty on aiding the enemy.

When the judge was done, Coombs put his hand on Manning’s back and whispered something to him, eliciting a slight smile on the soldier’s face.

Coombs came outside the court to a round of applause and shouts of “thank you” from a few dozen Manning supporters.

“We won the battle, now we need to go win the war,” Coombs said of the sentencing phase. “Today is a good day, but Bradley is by no means out of the fire.”

Manning’s court-martial was unusual because he acknowledged giving the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks more than 700,000 battlefield reports and diplomatic cables, and video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians in Iraq, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. In the footage, airmen laughed and called targets “dead bastards.”

Manning pleaded guilty earlier this year to lesser offenses that could have brought him 20 years behind bars, yet the government continued to pursue the original, more serious charges.

Manning said during a pre-trial hearing in February he leaked the material to expose the U.S military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life, and what he considered American diplomatic deceit. He said he chose information he believed would not the harm the United States and he wanted to start a debate on military and foreign policy. He did not testify at his court-martial.

Coombs portrayed Manning as a “young, naive but good-intentioned” soldier who was in emotional turmoil, partly because he was a gay service member at a time when homosexuals were barred from serving openly in the U.S. military.

He said Manning could have sold the information or given it directly to the enemy, but he gave them to WikiLeaks in an attempt to “spark reform” and provoke debate. A counterintelligence witness valued the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs at about $5.7 million.

Coombs said Manning had no way of knowing whether al-Qaida would access the secret-spilling website and a 2008 counterintelligence report showed the government itself didn’t know much about the site.

The defense attorney also mocked the testimony of a former supervisor who said Manning told her the American flag meant nothing to him and she suspected before they deployed to Iraq that Manning was a spy. Coombs noted she had not written up a report on Manning’s alleged disloyalty, though had written ones on him taking too many smoke breaks and drinking too much coffee.

The government said Manning had sophisticated security training and broke signed agreements to protect the secrets. He even had to give a presentation on operational security during his training after he got in trouble for posting a YouTube video about what he was learning.

The lead prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, said Manning knew the material would be seen by al-Qaida, a key point prosecutor needed to prove to get an aiding the enemy conviction. Even Osama bin Laden had some of the digital files at his compound when he was killed.

The court-martial of Manning unfolded as another low-level intelligence worker, Edward Snowden, revealed U.S. secrets about surveillance programs. Snowden, a civilian employee, told The Guardian newspaper of London that his motives were similar to Manning’s, but he said his leaks were more selective.

Manning’s supporters believed a conviction for aiding the enemy would have a chilling effect on leakers who want to expose wrongdoing by giving information to websites and the media.

Before Snowden, Manning’s case was the most high-profile espionage prosecution for the Obama administration, which has been criticized for its crackdown on leakers.

The WikiLeaks case is by far the most voluminous release of classified material in U.S. history. Manning’s supporters included Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who in the early 1970s spilled a secret Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers showed that the U.S. government repeatedly misled the public about the Vietnam War.

The material WikiLeaks began publishing in 2010 documented complaints of abuses against Iraqi detainees, a U.S. tally of civilian deaths in Iraq, and America’s weak support for the government of Tunisia — a disclosure that Manning supporters said helped trigger the Middle Eastern pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

The Obama administration said the release threatened to expose valuable military and diplomatic sources and strained America’s relations with other governments.

Prosecutors said during the trial Manning relied on WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange for guidance on what secrets to “harvest” for the organization, starting within weeks of his arrival in Iraq in late 2009.

Federal authorities are looking into whether Assange can be prosecuted. He has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex-crimes allegations.

(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco, the Associated Press and Bay City News. All rights reserved.)

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