Let's get the details out of the way, first. Bradley Manning has been found guilty of 20 of 21 charges, but has not been found guilty of aiding the enemy. Although the sentencing is yet to occur, it's clear Manning will continue to spend time behind bars, but the military court has determined that he's officially not a traitor in the legal sense of the term.
I'll discuss that point in a minute. For now, let's just look at how the press is parsing this news. Drudge claims "Not a traitor" as it goes on to link to Politico. The Wall Street Journal headlines Manning Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy. Reuters trumpets, Bradley Manning verdict: Judge finds soldier in WikiLeaks case not guilty of aiding enemy as does the Washington Post: Bradley Manning found not guilty of aiding the enemy.
Reading these headlines, you'd think that young Bradley was off the hook, that stealing government secrets was an OK thing to do, and that his supporters were vindicated.
Of course, once you click into the stories, you'd learn the truth, that Bradley Manning is still in a heap of trouble and will probably spend most of his days in jail for his crimes.
I've written a lot about Manning over the last three years and I've described him in almost every case as a "traitor". My reasoning was that he accepted the trust of a nation, stole information entrusted to him, and distributed that information to a foreign actor.
He has, in fact, been found guilty of those charges. However, the judgment issued was more nuanced than that, reflecting the degree of balance practiced by America's judicial system, even in the case of military trials.
There was another factor about Manning. He's a kid. He's old enough to have done something very dangerous and damaging, but after hearing a long and detailed case, the judge determined that Manning was more stupid than evil. Although it's clear the result of his actions resulted in al Qaeda gaining access to some of the documents Manning stole, the judge ruled that Manning's intention was not to aid the enemy.
This is a very important distinction, and it's why America has judges and a court system — and why, in most cases, it works.
Manning's conviction was not a rubber stamp. The government's story would have been a lot easier to tell, especially in light of the Snowden fiasco, if Manning were a convicted traitor. "Steal documents, you're a traitor." It's a clear, simple sound bite.
But Col Denise Lind, the presiding judge on the case, did not provide a sound-bite judgment. Manning was convicted of stealing information, sneaking around security systems, and misusing classified information. That's an almost slam-dunk case. But there's a big jump from what he did to what he thought, what his intentions were, and, apparently, for the record, his intentions were not to aid the enemy.
So where does this put all of us who said that Manning was a traitor, and all of those folks who said Manning was a hero? The short answer is we're not in jail, but he is.
The longer answer is again the celebration of American openness. We're all allowed to mouth off. We're allowed to have our opinions. We're even allowed to be wrong or right (or a mix, as was the case here). We're allowed to be critical of the government and keep our freedoms. Those of us opining on this case (and others, like the Snowden job), will continue to do so.
In the meantime, we can probably all feel a little bit of compassion for the deeply misguided Bradley Manning and the punishments that he's now officially earned.