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Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy for Amnesty International, said Manning — whether it was his goal or not — had become a symbol.
"His revelations have become symbolic of challenging a post-9/11 world in which national security has gone awry," she said. "It has piqued the imagination and interest of people who are asking if 9/11 gave carte blanche for the government to do whatever it wants as long it says it's in the name of national security."
Support for Manning has been particularly notable in Europe, where he was widely viewed as a conscience-stricken whistleblower incurring the wrath of American authorities for disclosures that embarrassed them.
The Geneva-based International Peace Bureau this month awarded Manning its annual peace prize. Several European lawmakers have urged the U.S. to free him outright. Vigils and protests have regularly been held in his honor outside of U.S. embassies across the continent.
"Manning is a true patriot, not a traitor," British gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell said Tuesday. "At great personal sacrifice, he exposed grave crimes that were perpetrated and then hidden by the U.S. government and military."
With his slight build and bespectacled, boyish looks, Manning embodied neither a superhero nor arch-villain. Indeed, Widney Brown suggested his case provided a counterpoint to the macho imagery that sometimes envelops military and national security matters.
Norm Kent, a criminal defense lawyer and publisher of the South Florida Gay News, likened Manning to the Chinese man shown in an iconic photograph confronting a line of army tanks amid Beijing's Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
"I'd like to think Manning is one of the people who rose to the moment when he was faced with a moral crisis," Kent said. "Maybe, having been a gay man and an outcast before, and understanding what it was like to be alienated, he wasn't afraid to become the little engine that could."
Steven Bucci, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Manning's personal traits would contribute to a mixed legacy.
"People see a troubled young man as much as a hero or a complete villain," Bucci said. "I don't think there are many people who think he's Benedict Arnold, but they think he broke the law and his reasoning is skewed. I don't know that he's going to become a folk hero except for the most rabid civil libertarian kind of folks."
Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said he initially shared the perception that Manning was psychologically frail, but changed his view after hearing the private testify while pleading guilty to some of the charges leveled against him.
"I had an image that turned out to be completely false," Ratner said. "I was shocked by his intelligence, his politics, the firmness of his voice. It showed a person with tremendous presence."
"His plea was so moving," Ratner said. "Someday maybe people will read it and begin to understand what it means to act on your conscience."