WASHINGTON - A military judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a far-reaching charge that Army Pfc. Bradley Manning aided the enemy when he gave hundreds of thousands of government documents to WikiLeaks, an online repository of secrets from the U.S. government as well as other nations and corporations.
In a major victory for the Pentagon and a defeat for Manning, Army Col. Denise Lind rejected a defense motion that she dismiss the most serious of multiple charges filed against Manning. The aiding-the-enemy charge carries the possibility of life in prison; in theory, prosecutors could have asked for the death penalty.
Lind cited Manning's training as an intelligence analyst, as well as the sheer volume of the 700,000 documents he has acknowledged providing WikiLeaks, as the basis for reasoning that he knew the leak could aid al-Qaida.
"They're not commonly granted," Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School, said in an interview about motions to dismiss, while adding that "as a matter of law, I don't know if her ruling will survive."
Lind's highly anticipated ruling, delivered in a Fort Meade, Md., courtroom outside of Washington, leaves intact 19 other criminal counts. It does not necessarily mean she ultimately will find Manning guilty on the aiding-the-enemy charge, as the motion to dismiss faces a relatively high legal hurdle.
Manning already has agreed to plead guilty to some of the additional charges, which can bring a sentence of up to 20 years at the Kansas military prison formally known as U.S. Disciplinary Barracks Leavenworth.
The aiding-the-enemy charge, though, has been the most consequential - and controversial - of the prosecution's case against the 25-year-old Oklahoma native.
For Manning, it has raised the question of whether he'll ever leave prison as a free man. For lawyers, journalists and potential whistle-blowers, the case has underscored how leakers and reporters alike have become legally vulnerable under the Obama administration's aggressive anti-leak campaign.
"The sole issue that the government really is advancing is, if you give information to any news organization that is going to publish that information and put it on the Internet, now you have actual knowledge that the enemy is going to gain access to that," defense attorney David Coombs argued in court on Monday.
To prove the aiding-the-enemy charge, prosecutors have the burden of showing Manning actually knew the documents he provided WikiLeaks would, even if indirectly, help terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida.
Under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, someone can be convicted for aiding the enemy by conveying intelligence "by direct or indirect means."