Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced last week to 35 years for leaking a substantial number of classified documents to Wikileaks, which then proceeded to publish those documents on the Internet.
The case gained quite a bit of attention, part of which was due to the interesting fact that it was the first time since the Civil War that the government leveled the “aiding the enemy” charge. Basically, the prosecution asserted that Manning, through his illegal distribution of secret documents that covered everything from diplomatic cables to details of controversial military operations, had provided aid and comfort to the enemy (i.e., terrorist groups).
Back in January, the Washington Post reported on the connection between the Manning trial and the Civil War, saying:
It was in Union-occupied Alexandria in 1863 that Pvt. Henry Vanderwater, a member of the 1st District of Columbia Volunteers stationed there to defend Washington, got himself in trouble. He gave a military roster to a local newspaper, which promptly printed it. For the offense of aiding the enemy — the roster would indicate how well or poorly the town was protected — he faced a court-martial, was found guilty and received a sentence of three months hard labor and a dishonorable discharge.
The prosecution argued that the Vanderwater case was a valid precedent, showing that publication of secret information can “indirectly convey information to the enemy,” and thus aid its cause.
Many critics claimed this was a strained, antiquated comparison, but it’s interesting to see how a case from the 1860s can still have relevance today. The medium might change, but whether newspapers then or the Internet today, we find ourselves confronted with similar problems of information getting into the wrong hands.