WikiLeaks case: Bradley Manning gets 35 years for leaking classified files

The 35-year sentence given Pfc. Bradley Manning – he could be out in 10 years – for the largest leak of classified information in US history reflects the complexity of the case, including harm to national security and how the Army dealt with his problems.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, before a sentencing hearing in his court martial. The military judge overseeing Pfc. Manning's trial sentenced him to 35 years in prison for giving US secrets to WikiLeaks.

The prison sentence given Army Pfc. Bradley Manning for the largest leak of classified information in US history – 35 years – is more than his defense team had recommended (25 years) but far less than the 60 years prosecutors had asked for or the 90 years he might have received given the seriousness of his crimes.

It reflects the complexity of the case, regarding on the one hand the extent to which Manning, who provided some 750,000 classified items to the controversial whistleblower organization WikiLeaks, actually harmed US national security and diplomatic interests, and on the other, the US military’s failure to deal with the young soldier’s mental and emotional problems, which several uniformed supervisors recognized but failed to address.

Still, the punishment announced Wednesday morning by military judge Col. Denise Lind for the 25-year-old intelligence analyst is serious.

He will be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank to private, and be made to forfeit all military pay and benefits. With credit for some three-and-a-half years already in custody (including 112 days of what Col. Lind found to be mistreatment in the military brig at Quantico. Va.) Manning could be eligible for release in about 10 years.

Manning was convicted of 20 of the 22 charges against him, including six violations of the Espionage Act, computer fraud, and five counts of theft. Prosecutors had sought conviction on aiding the enemy, but Lind ruled that there had not been enough evidence that Manning intended to do that in releasing battlefield reports known as war logs, diplomatic cables, and a video showing civilian men (including two Reuters news agency journalists) being killed in a US helicopter attack in Iraq.

But in her “special findings” related to Manning’s conviction, Lind also wrote: “At the time of the charged offense, Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were enemies of the United States. Pfc. Manning knew that Al Qaeda was an enemy of the United States.”

Apparently mitigating what could have been a harsher sentence was testimony during the trial from officers and senior enlisted personnel who had worked with Manning, witnessing his sometimes strange and violent behavior that in retrospect should have prevented his access to classified information. Army psychiatrists told of Manning’s “sexual identity disorder,” observed at a time when official US policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Fifteen individuals, including commissioned and noncommissioned officers, have been disciplined for failures related to Manning’s actions. The Army major who commanded the intelligence wing of Manning's brigade combat team was formally reprimanded, the company commander was replaced, and Manning’s immediate supervisor was reduced in rank – likely career-ending punishments.

Civil libertarians, freedom of information advocates, and opponents of US military policy were quick to respond.

"When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said in a statement. “This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it's also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate."

The whistleblower organization Government Accountability Project termed Manning’s sentence “excessive and unjust.”

Manning’s supporters, who see him as a hero, have begun an online petition to have him pardoned.y

Amnesty International immediately called on President Obama to commute Manning's sentence.

“Bradley Manning acted on the belief that he could spark a meaningful public debate on the costs of war, and specifically on the conduct of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan," Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "The US government should turn its attention to investigating and delivering justice for the serious human rights abuses committed by its officials in the name of countering terror.”

Pardon or commutation are highly unlikely – especially from an administration that has controversially made a point of cracking down on leakers.

“The military is serious about sending a deterrent message to those under their command tempted to leaking documents to journalists,” Michael Rustad, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, told Monitor staff writer Mark Clayton. “There is a message of general deterrence to others in the military who are tempted to leak data to journalists for whatever reason.”

“The future of ‘principled leaking’ of military documents is much in doubt,” Professor Rustad said.

Under military law, Manning’s verdict and sentence must be reviewed – and may be reduced – by the commander of the Military District of Washington, currently Maj. Gen. Jeffery S. Buchanan. Besides the court-martial record, Manning's defense team can submit other pieces of information in a bid for leniency.

If Buchanan approves a sentence that includes a bad-conduct discharge, a dishonorable discharge or confinement for a year or more, the case will be automatically reviewed by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

Further appeals can be made to the military's highest court, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the US Supreme Court.

During the sentencing phase of his military trial at Ft. Meade, Md., Manning apologized for his actions, one of the rare times he spoke at his court martial.

"I'm sorry that my actions hurt people,” he told the court. “I'm sorry that it hurt the United States.”

"I should have worked more aggressively within the system,” Manning said. “Unfortunately, I can't go back and change things. I understand I must pay a price for my decisions.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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