Army leaker Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Wednesday morning. Manning, 25, had faced up to 90 years in prison for the 20 counts on which he was convicted, including violations of the 1917 Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The prosecution in his case had pushed for a minimum of 60 years.
Government transparency advocates say that Manning's sentence is unprecedented for the United States. "We've never seen this long a prison sentence for leaks to the press," says Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy, and Technology project. "This is new ground for the U.S."
Manning was arrested on May 27th, 2010, and later held in the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia for 112 days in "cruel, inhumane, and degrading" conditions, according to the U.N. special rapporteur on torture. Manning will be credited for 1,294 days off of his sentence, for time served. As part of the sentence, he was dishonorably discharged and has to forfeit pay and benefits from the U.S. military.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors had also charged Manning with aiding the enemy, a charge tantamount to treason, which carries a possible life sentence. Though Judge Colonel Denise Lind found Manning not guilty of aiding the enemy in July, she also declined to dismiss the charge outright – which some activists have said could set a dangerous precedent and result in the government bringing that charge against future whistleblowers.
Although Manning has often been accused of leaking files indiscriminately, his supporters paint a different picture. "700,000 cables, that sounds like a ton," says Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support network. But he adds that Manning only released information that was classified as "Secret" – the Pentagon Papers published by The New York Times in 1971, by contrast, were marked "Top Secret" – and information that documented past events, not future plans. "If you look at what Manning could have released," adds Fuller, "he was highly selective."
Between the announcement of the verdict and the sentencing, Manning's defense was able to present mitigating evidence that they hoped would lessen his sentence. One piece they introduced was a photo of Manning wearing a wig and make-up that was attached to an email whose subject line read: "My problem." The body of the email then detailed Manning's struggles with gender identity. The email appeared to tell a story consistent with some other transgender people's experience in the military.In Manning's words, "I thought a career in the military would get rid of it." The military still discriminates based on trans identity, and someone who is openly trans risks being discharged.
Manning's court martial has taken place against a backdrop of increased attention the role of whistleblowers following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks about U.S. government surveillance to the Guardian and the Washington Post. Although President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder often say they value the service whistleblowers provide to society, many critics have accused them of overseeing not just a war on whistleblowers and leaks, but also on journalism more widely. Asks the ACLU's Wizner, "What possible incentive would Snowden have to engage with this kind of legal regime?"
Following the ruling, Amnesty International called on President Obama to commute Manning's sentence. "Bradley Manning should be shown clemency in recognition of his motives for acting as he did, the treatment he endured in his early pre-trial detention, and the due process shortcomings during his trial," said Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director of international law and policy, in a statement. "The President doesn't need to wait for this sentence to be appealed to commute it; he can and should do so right now."