A military judge made the right call, acquitting Bradley Manning of aiding the enemy while still holding him accountable for the largest leak of classified documents in U.S. history.
Government prosecutors called the Army private a traitor, claiming that while he did not directly give information to the enemy, he knew he would be helping al-Qaida and other terrorist groups by making the secrets public.
But the government overreached by filing the most serious charge against Manning under a legal theory that had not been used since the Civil War, when a Union soldier was found guilty for giving a document to a Virginia newspaper.
Civil liberties and press freedom groups justifiably warned of the chilling effect on whistle-blowers and journalists because under the government's argument, almost any leak of secret documents could be construed as "aiding the enemy" since terrorist groups have wide access to nearly all media reports.
However naive or misguided, it appears that Manning, an intelligence analyst in Iraq, intended to expose misdeeds in the war on terror, including the extent of civilian casualties not to help Osama bin Laden.
While Manning may not be a traitor, he is certainly no hero. He may have been mistreated in detention since his May 2010 arrest, but he doesn't deserve to be lionized by sympathizers, who demonstrated outside the courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., and other locations.
Can they be so sure his vast data dump didn't endanger foreign service officers and U.S. troops?
Besides betraying his oath as a soldier, Manning put people at risk and damaged U.S. interests by copying more than 700,000 digital files and giving them to WikiLeaks, which initially didn't take care to black out names before posting them online.
The documents included military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and information on suspected terrorists detained at Guantánamo Bay, as well as videos, among them a helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 10 civilians and two journalists. The biggest part of the trove: hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, some of which embarrassed the government, which says their release made some countries less willing to share intelligence and cooperate with the United States.
Manning, one of only two people convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act for making classified information public, took some responsibility for what he did, pleading guilty to at least portions of 10 counts. A conviction for aiding the enemy would have put him in prison for life, without any possibility of parole.
Still, the 25-year-old Manning is going to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for a long time after Army Col. Denise Lind convicted him of 20 lesser charges after a nearly two-month trial.
What could be a lengthy sentencing hearing began Wednesday. Manning faces a maximum of 136 years behind bars, as well as a dishonorable discharge and loss of pay and benefits.
He should be punished severely. But the judge wisely made sure that whistle-blowers and journalists weren't collateral damage in the case.