The 35-year sentence handed down to US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning on Wednesday is a split-the-difference decision that is likely to inflame passions on both sides of the increasingly rancorous public debate surrounding the whole WikiLeaks affair.
The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, did not comply either with the harsh demands of the prosecution, which recommended 60 years, nor with the defense’s request for a more lenient 25 years.
In the best-case scenario, Manning could be out in just eight years: he is required to serve one-third of his sentence, or just under 12 years, minus the more than three years he has already spent in confinement, before he is eligible for parole. If denied parole at his first hearing, he can try again yearly until the end of his sentence, according to his lawyers.
His time already served includes 112 days of detention, when Manning was held under conditions described by the UN special rapporteur on torture as cruel and inhumane and which even the Army acknowledged was “excessively harsh.”
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, broke down at the sentence, and had to be consoled by his client.
"We went back into the room [after the judge read the sentence]," Coombs told reporters at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "Myself and others were in tears … [Manning] looks to me, and he says, 'It's OK. It's alright. I know you did your best. I'm going to be OK. I'm going to get through this.'”
Coombs said that, in his experience, the punishment did not fit the crime: leaking more than 700,000 pages of classified material.
“When I heard the sentence, 35 years, I think to myself — I've represented hundreds of clients. And my clients have run the gamut, from people who have committed murder to molested children, and those types of clients receive less time that Pfc. Manning,” said Coombs.
But the length of the sentence was never really the point: in the deeply polarized post-WikiLeaks world, no conceivable sentence would have satisfied public opinion.
For those who supported the prosecution’s viewpoint, nothing short of life behind bars would have been enough.
In his closing arguments for the prosecution, Maj. Asden Fein argued that “there may not be a soldier in the history of the United States who displayed such an extreme disregard for the judgment of the officers appointed above him and the orders of the President of the United States.”
Manning’s revelations “created a grave risk of harm to national security,” and “endangered the well-being of innocent civilians and soldiers,” said Fein.
The pundits jumped in almost as soon as the sentence was proclaimed.
“Bradley Manning got off too easy,” blasted Ryan Evans of The National Interest Online. He further opined that Manning should have been convicted of “aiding the enemy” — the most serious charge levied against him, and of which he was acquitted — and likened WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to 19th century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
But as much as Manning is branded a traitor and a villain by some, he is lionized by others.
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Reporters covering the event tweeted that cries of “Bradley Manning, you’re our hero!” went up from the crowd outside the gates of Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, where the trial took place. They were joined by organized protesters holding “Free Bradley Manning” signs.
Even Lady Gaga got into the act.
“The news of Bradley Manning’s sentencing is devastating,” she tweeted. "If our own can’t speak up about injustice, who will? How will we ever move forward?"
The defense had pleaded for clemency based on Manning’s fragile emotional state, and on a lack of support and oversight by his Army superiors.
But in his closing arguments, Fein made clear that Manning alone was responsible.
“This is a case about Pfc. Manning, Your Honor,” he said. “The Army is not on trial.”
In this, Fein may be deceiving himself. Not only is the Army squarely in the sights of Manning’s supporters, the whole Obama administration — and, indeed, the government in general — is being indicted in the court of public opinion.
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, issued a scathing commentary Wednesday morning.
"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,” he said. “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 Huffington Post pulled no punches with its headline: “Bradley Manning Headed To Prison, While Those Who Presided Over Torture Go Free.”
Among those who should have been in the dock, insisted reporter Matt Sledge, were former President George W. Bush, his vice president and defense secretary, the head of the CIA under the Bush administration, and all those who tortured prisoners.
Many who objected to the Manning sentence pointed out the danger that any future whistleblowers might be deterred by the severity of his punishment. This, in fact, was the intended effect.
Fein again: “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor. This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information. National security crimes that undermine the entire system must be taken seriously.”
Defense lawyer Coombs agreed that a message had been sent.
The loser here, he said at his press conference, is "anyone who hopes you'll have whistleblowers in the future willing to step forward. Because this does send a message, and it's a chilling one."
It certainly has chilled one whistleblower: NSA leaker Edward Snowden is now biding his time in Russia, since, according to his father, he is convinced he cannot get a fair trial in the United States.
“Manning sentenced to 35 years: gee, I wonder why Snowden doesn’t trust US justice as a whistleblower,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story.
Greenwald himself is at the center of a political storm at the moment: his partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport over the weekend, and his computer and other items confiscated. Miranda is filing a lawsuit over the incident.
More from GlobalPost: The US and Britain: How close is too close?
Liza Goitein, who co-directs the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program at NYU’s Law School, called Manning’s sentence “unprecedented.”
“It is dramatically longer than the longest sentence ever served for disclosing classified information to the media, which was two years,” she told the Guardian. “I think the government has managed to successfully press a new interpretation of the Espionage Act.”
Manning was convicted on several counts of the 1917 law, which has been used more under the Obama administration than under all previous presidents combined.
Manning can and will appeal the sentence; he has appointed his defense lawyer David Coombs to oversee the process. Once a petition for clemency is filed it will be sent to the president for a final decision.
Amnesty International’s Widney Brown is calling on President Barack Obama to show compassion.
“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,” he wrote. “The President doesn’t need to wait for this sentence to be appealed to commute it; he can and should do so right now.”
Such an action might start to mitigate the negative reaction the administration is seeing from Manning supporters.
Several rallies in support of Manning are being planned, one of which will take place outside the White House at 7:30 Wednesday evening.
Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, who has been a champion of Manning in the past, wrote a heated op-ed in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in response to his sentence:
“The heavy hand dealt Bradley Manning today is a massive blow against everything many of us hold sacred — at a time when we have been shown how fragile and weak our democracies are by the revelations of, first, Manning, and now, Snowden,” she wrote.
“We are seeing the state acting like a wounded tiger, cornered and lashing out in rage — attacking the person who speaks the truth in order to frighten the rest of us into silence. But to that, I have only one answer: it won't work.”