By Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Accused of the nation's biggest-ever security leak, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning was vilified by the government for causing irreparable damage to American national interests. In retrospect, the harm he caused seems to have been overplayed.
A U.S. military judge cleared Manning on Tuesday of the most serious charge against him - aiding the enemy - in a verdict that indicated the soldier's secrecy violations, while criminal, were not as dire as prosecutors had alleged.
Manning's revelations to WikiLeaks, including hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables and raw intelligence reports from the Iraqi and Afghan battlefields, violated his military oath and "put real lives and real careers at risk," said former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
But the strategic damage to the United States - to its reputation and its ability to work with allies and conduct diplomacy - "was transitory," said Crowley, who resigned in 2011 after publicly criticizing the Pentagon's treatment of Manning in a military prison.
As reams of classified State Department cables - some containing unflattering portraits of foreign leaders or detailing U.S. envoys' contacts with human rights groups - leaked to the public, some saw catastrophe for U.S. diplomacy.
Yet, despite what Crowley called a few "isolated cases" in which foreign counterparts were less candid than in the past, fearing their words might leak, the State Department was able to mitigate the damage.
In just one of dozens of examples, U.S. ties with Indonesia wobbled after the release of cables showing the U.S. Embassy suspected collusion between Jakarta's security forces and the extremist Islamic Defenders Front, accused of attacks on religious minorities.
The leaks "were quite unpleasant," said Teuku Faizasyah, Indonesia's presidential spokesman for foreign affairs. But he said, "Our relations with the U.S. have continued normally since. The lesson is that we have to be more careful with the flow of such intelligence."
The military judge, Colonel Denise Lind, found Manning guilty on 19 counts, including five espionage charges. Manning could face a sentence of 136 years in prison. Military prosecutors had pushed for a harsher judgment. They called him a "traitor" and said his actions had helped the al Qaeda network.
'SUBTLE RATHER THAN CATASTROPHIC'
"The official damage assessments concerning Manning/WikiLeaks have not been publicly released, but my sense is that the bulk of the damage is subtle rather than catastrophic," said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group.
"But it is nonetheless real," Aftergood said. "Because of the broad scope and overwhelming volume of the WikiLeaks cables, their disclosure cast doubt on the ability of the U.S. government to guarantee confidentiality of any kind - whether in diplomacy, military operations or intelligence. That's not a small thing."
In Australia, a crucial U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region, the revelations have affected the way Western diplomats operate and report on political developments, and have curtailed events such as social dinner party chats where diplomats often gain insights on what is happening in a country.
"The diplomats have told me this has affected their reporting of events in Australia, or events anywhere in the world," said government lawmaker Michael Danby, who until June was head of Australia's powerful joint intelligence committee which oversees intelligence matters.
"It has restricted political reporting and mingling for open Western societies (among diplomats and politicians)."
In late 2010, Wikileaks cables outed then Australian sports minister Mark Arbib as a regular source of information for U.S. diplomats. Danby's name was also mentioned. One cable also described current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then the foreign minister, as a "mistake-prone control freak".
It remains to be seen whether the Manning verdict - rendered in a military rather than civilian court - will impact future prosecutions, most notably against former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked documents exposing previously secret U.S. telephone and internet surveillance programs. Snowden, who faces U.S. criminal charges, has taken refuge in a Moscow airport.
Aftergood, while cautioning that military courts are quite different from civilian leak trials, said, "Every Espionage Act case can alter the legal landscape for cases that come after it."
President Barack Obama has been more aggressive than any of his predecessors in searching out and punishing those responsible for national security leaks.
"There could also be some 'psychological' effect on how the government deals with leak cases as a result of the Manning trial, but this is harder to predict," Aftergood said.
"Prosecutors might say, 'Aha, we won - now let's go do it again.' Or they might say, 'OK, we made our point - now we can step back a little bit.'"
In the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure, Obama ordered new steps to protect classified material stored on government computers and, in November 2012, issued a "National Insider Threat Policy" aimed at stopping future leaks like those by Manning.
Among the new steps were automated monitoring of classified government networks, aimed at detecting unusually large downloads of data. But that did not deter Snowden from allegedly making away with numerous highly classified NSA documents.
(Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta and James Grubel in Canberra; Editing by Will Dunham, Stuart Grudgings and Neil Fullick)