In sentencing Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison, a military judge disappointed both the prosecution, which had sought a 60-year term, and Manning’s most ardent supporters, who believe he should serve no time at all. Assuming that Manning is released on parole after a reasonable time, the sentence imposed by Col. Denise Lind strikes a reasonable balance between the damage Manning did to national security and the service he performed by exposing certain matters to public attention.
To his admirers, the 25-year-old Manning is a heroic whistle-blower who exposed official wrongdoing. Some of his disclosures, such as a 2007 video of an Apache helicopter attack that killed 12 civilians in Baghdad, support that characterization. But Manning’s disclosures went well beyond that. Many of the 700,000 files the young soldier downloaded from government computers and turned over to the WikiLeaks website undermined U.S. diplomacy without providing any commensurate public benefit.
In some ways Manning is a sympathetic figure. He seems to have been motivated by a sincere, if naive, belief about the salutary consequences of spilling official secrets. For example, he apparently believed that ventilating the contents of State Department cables would usher in an era in which, as he put it, “states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.” In a poignant statement to the judge before sentencing, Manning said, “I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better.”
Manning also was the victim of both mistreatment by his jailers and an overaggressive prosecution. After his arrest, he was held in virtual solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at a Marine Corps brig and sometimes stripped of his clothes, supposedly to prevent him from hurting himself or others. (Lind has reduced his sentence by 112 days because his confinement was “more rigorous than necessary.”)
Even after Manning pleaded guilty to offenses that could have led to a 20-year sentence, the Army insisted on trying him on more serious charges, including “aiding the enemy,” which could have put him in prison for life. Lind acquitted Manning of that charge but found him guilty of several others, including multiple violations of the Espionage Act.
Under military law, Manning may ask the “convening authority” — an Army general — to review his conviction and sentence, and there is also an appeals process. If the sentence stands, Manning could apply for parole after eight years. That would be an appropriate punishment.
Manning’s supporters are urging President Obama to pardon him or commute his sentence to time served. That is both unlikely and unjustified; even if he was engaging in principled civil disobedience, Manning should face some consequences for violating the law. But if Manning is denied parole after serving several years in prison, a future president should be willing to consider clemency.