WASHINGTON – A military judge on Wednesday sentenced Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison, bringing to a close the government’s determined pursuit of the U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked the largest cache of classified documents in U.S. history.
The long prison term is likely to hearten national security officials who have been rattled by the subsequent leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Manning’s conviction might also encourage the government to bring charges against the man who was instrumental in the publication of the documents he disclosed, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
Manning, 25, was acquitted last month on the most serious charge he faced — aiding the enemy — but was convicted on multiple other counts, including violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a brief hearing, the military judge didn’t offer any explanation for the sentence.
“The message won’t be lost for everyone in the military,” said Steven Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “When you sign a security clearance and swear oaths, you actually have to abide by that. It is not optional.”
Civil liberties groups condemned the judge’s decision.
“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,” said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it’s also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistle-blowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate.”
Manning will receive 3½ years of credit for time served in pretrial confinement and for the abusive treatment he endured in a marine brig at Quantico, Virginia, making him eligible for parole in seven years. He will serve his sentence at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
On Wednesday, Manning stood at attention, with his attorneys at his side and his aunt behind him, as he listened to Judge Denise Lind read the sentence aloud. He did not appear to react to her decision.
Lind, an army colonel, also said Manning would be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank to private, and forfeit all pay. He had faced up to 90 years in prison.
As Manning was escorted out of the packed courtroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, more than half a dozen supporters shouted out to him: “We’ll keep fighting for you, Bradley! You’re our hero!”
According to his lawyer David Coombs, Manning told his distraught defense team after the sentence was issued, “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. I know you did your best. I am going to be OK. I am going to get through this.”
Coombs said at a news conference that he will seek a presidential pardon for his client in the coming weeks. He read a statement from Manning in which the private reiterated his reasons for leaking classified material, saying he had “started to question the morality” of U.S. policy. Manning added that if his request for a pardon is denied, he will serve his time “knowing sometimes you pay a heavy price to live in a free country.”
“I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal,” he said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said any application will receive routine consideration. The administration had no further comment on the sentence, and military prosecutors also did not comment on the sentence.
In a statement, WikiLeaks called Manning’s conviction “an affront to basic concepts of Western justice” and said his treatment has been intended “to send a signal to people of conscience in the U.S. government who might seek to bring wrongdoing to light.”
Coombs said recent disclosures about NSA surveillance had eclipsed the attention paid to Manning’s court-martial. Asked how he would advise Snowden on the possibility of returning to the United States for trial, Coombs said: “I would tell him the current environment is not one friendly to whistle-blowers.”
“Under the current administration, leaking information to the press is tantamount to aiding the enemy. We avoided a conviction on the aiding the enemy charge, but the fact that they pursued it, let it go forward, should send alarms to all journalists,” he added.
Coombs said the prosecution had offered Manning a plea deal prior to trial in order to get him to testify against WikiLeaks in an ongoing investigation in the Eastern District of Virginia. Coombs said the government offer was “a length of sentence that exceeded what Manning received today,” and was rejected.
“I do not think the sentence has a legal effect on the continued investigation of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,” said Michael Ratner, the U.S. attorney for Assange and WikiLeaks and president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “However, it may well embolden the government in its efforts to indict journalists such as Julian Assange. The length of the sentence demonstrates what Assange and Edward Snowden face if they are ever taken into custody by the U.S. — draconian sentences.”
The court-martial will now enter a “post-trial” and appellate phase. The government is required to compile a complete record, review all transcripts and findings, and submit its final version to a military official known as the convening authority, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan. Manning can petition Buchanan for clemency during this phase. Manning’s case will also be reviewed by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether the verdict and sentence can be appealed.
Manning established a relationship online with a person who is thought to be Assange in 2010.
He transmitted the first documents to WikiLeaks in February 2010, sending what came to be known as the Iraq and Afghanistan “War Logs.” He continued to transmit more material, including a video that showed a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad opening fire on a group of individuals that the crew believed to be insurgents. Among the dead were Iraqi children and two journalists.
Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010.