Given it's a sensitive time surrounding the release of government secrets, a surprising ruling issued by Army judge Col. Denise Lind acquitted Bradley Manning Tuesday of the charge of aiding the enemy by releasing hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to Wikileaks. While sparing Manning the ruling of aiding U.S. enemies, he was convicted of several counts of violating the Espionage Act (which is rare) and almost certainly faces significant jail time.
One of the most controversial laws ever passed, the Espionage Act criminalizes "obtaining information respecting the national defense with intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to injury of the United States ..." among other actions. Critics view it as a restriction on freedom of speech.
In the lead-up to World War I, it was passed under President Wilson with bipartisan support in response to acts by the Germans. It has since rarely been used — upheld shortly after its passage three times by the Supreme Court and used only a handful of times under other presidents — until the Obama administration began utilizing it as a mechanism to stop "aggressive journalism" and take whistle-blowers to court. "In case after case, the Espionage Act has been deployed as a kind of ad hoc Official Secrets Act, which is not a law that has ever found traction in America, a place where the people's right to know is viewed as superseding the government's right to hide its business."
As the government shied away from utilizing the act due to its percieved impact on civil liberties, in recent years it appears Washington has overhauled its purpose and is raising havoc in the open-information society we live in. After today's ruling, it appears the government may be sending a message of intimidation that they will come after perpetrators strongly who threaten their reputation. But critics have stated they overstepped their reach in this case. The ACLU released a statement saying leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Act, because such action constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. But what defines the public's interest is a larger debate, and one that needs to happen sooner rather than later as the looming Snowden case is the next on the docket of people trying to inform public debate. For the time being, according to former New York Times editor Bill Keller, Judge Lind spared future leakers of setting a precedent that they all aid the enemy.