Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of documents, videos, and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks in 2010, was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy,” the most serious charge against him, in a military court Tuesday. But his conviction on a litany of lesser charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, may still bring decades or even life in prison, meaning the tale of the celebrity leaker who preceded Edward Snowden (of NSA surveillance fame) should still serve as a deterrent to future disclosures — and a reminder to civil liberties advocates and the press of a remarkable shift from President Obama since his emergence on the political scene a decade ago.
Lest we forget, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, won the presidency in large part by making a clear argument about the need to rein in America’s military sprawl across the Middle East since 2001, which he highlighted with early opposition to the Iraq War. His transformation from hero of civil libertarians opposed to the Bush administration to surveillance enforcer has been remarkable, and in that sense the nitty gritty of the sentencing will have some impact on his legacy. To be sure, Obama’s legacy as the most furiously anti-leak president in American history is looking calcified at this point. But the devil is in the details.
Indeed, the worst-case scenario for the Obama administration might actually be a light sentence for Manning, whose cult of personality among hacktivists and opponents of the U.S. surveillance regime is already well-established. Couple that with the ongoing PR disaster that is the Snowden affair, the impact of which has only been increased by his taking shelter with Obama’s geopolitical opponent Vladimir Putin, and the president would find himself both an enemy of transparency advocates and looking relatively weak, unable to offer a robust deterrent to future disclosures.
More broadly, this is an argument that Obama seems to be losing. The House of Representatives came awfully close last week to defunding the NSA’s controversial data collection programs, the momentum clearly on the side of those determined to rein in the surveillance state. So while Manning is in serious trouble, as expected, for violating his duties as a soldier and a citizen, the judge’s decision to hold off on the “aiding the enemy” charge speaks to division at the highest levels of the military establishment, one that is reacting to changing politics on the ground.