FORT MEADE, Md.—Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified U.S. government information to WikiLeaks, the culmination of a trial that posed tough questions about government secrecy and national security.
Wearing his Army dress uniform, Pfc. Manning stood impassively as the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, delivered a sentence that means the former intelligence analyst will likely spend at least eight more years behind bars before he could be freed.
The trial raised awkward questions over whether leakers like Pfc. Manning provide a public service by revealing secrets or whether such efforts are outweighed by the potential damage to national security. That debate has accelerated in recent months amid the release by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of secret documents detailing America’s expansive surveillance programs.
The punishment for Pfc. Manning, who downloaded some 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents that he sent to WikiLeaks, came as a shock to his attorneys and antisecrecy advocates, who said it would have a chilling effect on whistleblowers looking to expose government wrongdoing.
“The Manning prosecution has vividly demonstrated that, under our current legal system, there is little difference between the way we treat those who engage in espionage and those who disclose information to the press with the intent of informing public debate,” said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor at Boston College Law School.
Pfc. Manning’s sentence was the longest meted out in recent history for a would-be whistleblower charged with espionage for sharing classified information in an effort to change U.S. national-security policies. But the scope of Pfc. Manning’s leak was unprecedented.
Over seven months in 2010, based on documents and data provided by Pfc. Manning, WikiLeaks released 250,000 diplomatic cables, nearly 400,000 military reports and video of a 2007 U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees. The releases led to concerns that U.S. soldiers, diplomats and American allies could be jeopardized by the release of sensitive information about U.S. national security strategy.
For some, Pfc. Manning’s punishment wasn’t strong enough.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the sentence was “light.” He added, “Given the vast damage he did to our national security and the need to send a strong signal to others who may be tempted to disclose classified information, this is a dangerous conclusion.”
After an eight-week court-martial, Pfc. Manning, 25 years old, was convicted last month of espionage and other lesser charges. Col. Lind acquitted him of the most serious charge—aiding the enemy—which could have brought a life sentence.
Pfc. Manning had faced a maximum 90-year sentence. The prosecution had asked for 60 years, and the defense no more than 25. He received credit for 1,294 days in confinement, which his attorneys and military analysts said would mean he could be eligible for parole in about eight years. The judge ordered the former intelligence analyst in Iraq to be dishonorably discharged, forfeit all pay and benefits, and have his rank reduced to the lowest in the Army.
Pfc. Manning is expected to be transferred quickly to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to serve his sentence. The case will be immediately appealed, and he could be granted clemency by the Army parole board.
In a statement, Pfc. Manning sought to explain his actions as an attempt to expose America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism policies as a “dark moment” in U.S. history. “Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power,” he wrote. “When these cries of patriotism drown out any logically-based dissension, it is usually the American soldier that is given the order to carry out some ill-conceived mission.”
Last week, in a final appeal for leniency, Pfc. Manning apologized and cast himself as a misguided young soldier who didn’t realize that his actions would hurt the U.S.
David Coombs, Pfc. Manning’s lead attorney, and others said they would launch a new campaign urging President Barack Obama to pardon Pfc. Manning.
Pfc. Manning is a high-profile example of the administration’s crackdown on leaks. It has used the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more than twice as many people for mishandling secret government information as all other administrations combined.
Seven people, including Pfc. Manning and Mr. Snowden, have been charged under the act. Before President Barack Obama took office, only three people faced similar charges.
In another high-profile case, former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Kiriakou is currently serving a 30-month sentence after being convicted of sharing classified information with a reporter about the agency’s controversial waterboarding interrogation technique.
One supporter of Pfc. Manning let out a gasp in the small military courtroom as the judge issued her decision, and several shouted out to the Army private as he was quickly escorted out of the room.
“We’ll keep fighting for you, Bradley,” one called out. “You’re our hero,” said another.
Mr. Coombs said the defense team wept after the verdict and the Army private tried to console his lawyers before heading back to his jail cell. “He looks to me and he says, ‘It’s OK. It’s alright. Don’t worry about it. I know you did your best. It’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK,’” Mr. Coombs said later, his eyes welling up with tears. “He is a resilient young man.”
Pfc. Manning won international notice after his May 2010 arrest at a U.S. military base in Iraq. Supporters, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, hailed him as a whistleblower who risked his own freedom in an attempt to rouse opposition to American foreign policy and its “war on terror.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Assange was one of few supporters of Pfc. Manning who viewed the sentence in favorable terms, calling it a “significant tactical victory” that fell far short of original government charges. But, he said, the “only just outcome” would be Pfc. Manning’s “unconditional release.”