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Military court rejects Chelsea Manning’s appeal

ACCA affirms Manning’s conviction and sentence – but the legal case doesn’t end here

The US Army Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld Chelsea Manning’s convictions and sentencing, in a 26-page ruling released this week. The ruling will not have come as a surprise to Chelsea’s lawyers, Vincent Ward and Nancy Hollander, who have indicated that the appeal will now go to the next stage, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Chelsea’s legal team, supported with amicus briefs from the EFF, ACLU, and Amnesty International, contested Chelsea’s conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Espionage Act, as well as the amount of time she was credited for abusive prison conditions before trial. The appeals court struck down each argument, fully affirming the military judge’s decision – with the minor exception being that the court was not convinced that the Global Address List, containing 74,000 military addresses, exceeds the value of $1,000 necessary to qualify as felony theft.

Manning’s defense argued that Chelsea did not “exceed authorized access”, which constitutes a CFAA violation, by viewing the documents she ultimately sent to WikiLeaks, and that using a program (Wget) to download them quickly did not change the nature of her access. The EFF’s supporting brief similarly argued that this is a question of “use”, not “access.” The EFF also argued that the CFAA was written to criminalize “hacking,” not the “use” issues at play here, and that the CFAA has been rendered unconstitutionally broad. The court disagreed on all counts.

As for the Espionage Act, Manning’s defense argued that the Act’s wording is unconstitutionally vague, leaving her without notice as to what truly “relates to the national defense,” and that her actions should have been protected by the First Amendment. Supporting this argument, the ACLU said, “The Espionage Act, when applied to government whistleblowers and leakers, is unconstitutionally vague and allows for the discriminatory punishment of disfavored speakers.” Furthermore, “the Espionage Act is impermissibly overbroad if read to prohibit the disclosure of all information “relating to the national defense” without any regard to the public interest in the information.” The appeals court disagreed, finding that the First Amendment does not protect disclosures of national security information simply because they are intended for the press.

Finally, Manning’s team, with support from Amnesty International, contested the military judge’s finding of just 112 days credit for the abusive treatment Chelsea endured in pretrial detention. The appeals court essentially says that this point is moot given Manning’s commutation – Chelsea requested roughly seven years of credit; obviously she’s in a better position now.

As Chelsea’s lawyers have said on previous occasions, this is not the end of Manning’s case. Not only is Chelsea’s appeal the most important challenge to the Espionage Act for a generation, the results of this legal process are not academic for her personally.  As it currently stands, a dishonourable discharge – part of Chelsea’s sentence once the legal matter is closed – will appear on her record essentially as a felony conviction would, and if upheld would mean she is stripped of her healthcare and other benefits.

Chelsea Manning’s defense team can now bring her appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and if necessary all the way up to the Supreme Court.