WikiLeaks soldier guilty of espionage, not of 'aiding the enemy'

AMERICAN soldier Bradley Manning has been found guilty of espionage for leaking US government secrets, but has been cleared of the most serious charge that he wilfully helped al-Qaeda. Manning, in full military uniform, showed little emotion as he heard his fate in a nine-minute judgment that could still see him jailed for a total of 136 years for handing classified information to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website headed by Julian Assange.

The verdict follows an exhaustive two-month court martial at the Fort Meade military base in Maryland, near the US capital.

Manning's sentencing, which could take up to one month of further court time, will begin tomorrow.

The 25-year-old US Army private was working as an intelligence analyst near Baghdad when he was arrested more than three years ago and he has been in military custody ever since.

Having admitted earlier this year that he had passed a trove of 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, Manning's culpability was no longer in question and he was ultimately found guilty of all but two of the 22 offences for which he was tried.

But he was cleared of the court martial's most controversial charge, that of "aiding the enemy".

Government lawyers argued that the soldier exhibited malign intent in transmitting the files to WikiLeaks, which later published them, much to the embarrassment of the United States and its allies.

The prosecution had argued that Manning's actions directly benefited Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, but Colonel Denise Lind, the presiding judge, was not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that such damage had occurred.

"On charge one court finds you not guilty," Lind told Manning. That charge on its own carried a life sentence.

Lind warned the court that outbursts from members of the public during the verdict would see them ejected and the audience duly stayed silent as she then convicted Manning of all but one of the remaining charges.

Lind found the soldier guilty of seven of eight counts he faced under the Espionage Act, including counts of stealing US government property and the committal of computer fraud relating to confidential records.

He was also guilty of "wanton publication of intelligence on the Internet," and of leaking graphic cockpit footage of two US Apache attack helicopters killing 12 civilians on a Baghdad street -- a video dubbed "Collateral Murder" when it was released by WikiLeaks.

Manning was found not guilty of leaking classified records relating to a US military air strike in the Granai region of Afghanistan in May 2009.

The Afghan government said some 140 civilians were killed in the strike, including 92 children, but the United States put the toll at less than 100 and said 65 of those killed were insurgents.

Manning was also convicted on all five counts that he failed to obey military orders and regulations in his handling and improper storage of confidential information.

The case is considered crucial to the fate of those who disclose government information. Manning's disclosures largely comprised US diplomatic cables and classified battlefield reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The judgment was greeted with fury by WikiLeaks, who said on Twitter that the court's decision reflected "dangerous national security extremism" on the part of US President Barack Obama's White House.

Manning's conviction, it added, set a "very serious new precedent for supplying information to the press."

WikiLeaks is also working with a second American leaker, civilian former intelligence technician Edward Snowden, who is seeking asylum in Russia after revealing secret US electronic surveillance programs.

His supporters have cited Manning's trial as proof that Snowden was right to flee abroad with his leaks rather than face trial at home.

The best known US rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union, gave a measured response to the verdict, but reiterated its concern about the use of draconian anti-spying laws to curtail government whistleblowers.

Reporters Without Borders described the verdict as dangerous, citing the possible sentence of more than 100 years in jail.

"The verdict is warning to all whistleblowers, against whom the Obama administration has been waging an unprecedented offensive that has ignored the public interest in their revelations. It also threatens the future of investigative journalism, which risks finding its sources drying up," the group said.

Manning's defence team argued throughout the trial that he was not evil but "young and naive" and that he acted out of conscience, seeking to shine a light on what he felt was government misconduct.

But the prosecution insists Manning recklessly betrayed his uniform and his country by leaking documents he knew al-Qa'ida would see and use.

"Your honour, he was not a whistleblower, he was a traitor," lead prosecutor Major Ashden Fein told the court earlier this month.