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Editorial: Mixed verdict for Bradley Manning achieves justice

Private First Class Bradley Manning leaves a military

Private First Class Bradley Manning leaves a military court facility after hearing his verdict in the trial at Fort Meade, Maryland. (July 30, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Pfc. Bradley Manning was acquitted by a military judge Tuesday of aiding the enemy. That's a good thing. But he could still spend decades behind bars for the biggest leak of classified documents in American history. That's good, too.

In the mixed verdict, the judge found Manning knew the nation's enemies would have access to the 700,000 documents he gave to the WikiLeaks website, which exists to combat secrecy. But if he had been convicted of "aiding the enemy" for leaking information to fuel a public debate on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than directly handing it to a foreign power, it would have been a loss for the informed public needed to maintain a Democratic society and the press freedom at its foundation.

Manning, 25, previously admitted he was behind the leak of classified documents -- including State Department diplomatic cables, and Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports and video clips -- and pleaded guilty to a number of charges. The government persisted in prosecuting him for aiding the enemy, however, insisting that a man with his security clearance had to know the documents he leaked for dissemination online would end up in the hands of al-Qaida. But it had little evidence to support this claim of intent.

If the administration had succeeded in persuading the court to take that legal leap, it would have crippled much important reporting on national security and left the public in the dark about life-and-death matters, such as U.S. military attacks on civilians in war zones.

President Barack Obama has gone overboard in his crackdown on leakers. The administration has brought seven cases under the Espionage Act against CIA and FBI employees and contractors accused of leaking national security information -- more than all previous administrations combined.

And Obama's Justice Department has clumsily entangled journalists in its net. Federal prosecutors, investigating a leak that intelligence officials had warned Obama about North Korea's plan to conduct a nuclear test, labeled James Rosen of Fox News a "co-conspirator" after he reported the story in 2009. And prosecutors are still demanding that New York Times reporter James Risen testify at the espionage trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking information in 2003 about the U.S. effort to disrupt Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Almost everything the public knows about current government surveillance programs has come from leakers and whistle-blowers. The latest is Edward Snowden, a former security contractor who leaked documentation that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone records of millions of Americans in an intrusive data-mining program.

Fueled by outrage over that massive assault on privacy, the nation is having an important debate about how much government surveillance is too much in the digital age. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had warned that the public would be appalled if it knew the scope of what the NSA was doing. But constrained by secrecy requirements, he never provided any details. Without Snowden's actions, we might still be oblivious.

Snowden is trying to avoid extradition to the United States to stand trial. He must answer for his decision to reveal government secrets, just as Manning did. Despite what may have been altruistic motives, it's appropriate that Manning will be punished, though life behind bars would be excessive. Leaking information to the public is not treason.