Bradley Manning: “I Will Recover From This”

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Sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking documents to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning has vowed to stay positive, his defense lawyers tells Alexa O’Brien in an exclusive interview.

Fort Meade, MD — Just after receiving a sentence of 35 years in prison for transmitting hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and U.S. Army reports to WikiLeaks in 2010, Bradley Manning was in a surprisingly “cheerful mood,” according to his attorney.

“He said, ‘Hey It’s OK. It’s alright. I know you did everything you could for me. Don’t cry. Be happy. It’s fine. This is just a stage in my life. I am moving forward. I will recover from this,’” his defense lawyer David Coombs said in an interview conducted immediately after the sentencing.

Presiding military judge Col. Dense Lind, sternly handed down the sentence to a packed courtroom, stating only, “Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, this Court sentences you to be reduced to the grade of Private E-1, to forfeit all pay and allowances, to be confined for 35 years, and to be dishonorably discharged from the service.”

Coombs was stunned. “I look at the sentence and I can’t believe that was actually the sentence he received,” he told The Daily Beast. “There is a good young man who did what he thought was morally right and for the right reasons, and he was sentenced the way we would sentence somebody who committed murder—the way we would sentence somebody who molested a child. That is the sentence he received.”

Despite the clear devastation among supporters of Manning, however, Coombs said the defendant was in good spirits. “Interestingly, Manning was the one who was cheering everyone up,” he said.

While perhaps proportional to the information age that Manning was born into, the disclosures were unprecedented in scale and scope, and resulted in the largest criminal investigation ever into a publisher and its source.

At trial and sentencing, the prosecution cast Manning as a traitor who was indiscriminately harvesting information for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in willful disregard of the safety of military personnel and the national security of the United States. They asked the judge to put Manning away for 60 years: “[H]e betrayed the United States and for that betrayal is deserves to spend the majority of his remaining life in confinement.”

Manning was convicted on six espionage charges on the standard of probable harm from the release. In total, he was found guilty of 20 offenses including espionage, “exceeding authorized access,” and stealing government property and the newfangled offense of “wanton publication.” That charge has never been used in military law and is not tied to any existing federal criminal violation or punitive Article under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

He was acquitted, however, of “aiding the enemy,” one of two offenses under the U.C.M.J. that apply to any persons and not just members of the military. Judge Lind ruled that Manning’s good faith motive and any actual damage (or lack of damage) was not relevant and thus relegated to the sentencing phase.

The question remains when and if the Department of Justice intends to unseal any possible indictment against Julian Assange, editor in chief of WikiLeaks.

Much of the court record—the largest of any in military history—was hidden from the public. The public only got access 1,103 days into the legal proceeding. Because so much of the critical parts of the trial were conducted in closed sessions and obscurity, the public has been largely unclear on what the actual impact of the leaks were.  Prosecution witnesses—USG employees and federal contractors—testified in open session that no death resulted as a result of the leaks. But the prosecution presented evidence of mitigation efforts and temporary disruptions as well as future possible threats to military operations and diplomatic efforts.

When asked what the worst damage from the leaks was, Coombs said, “I personally…I think the most damage done was the sentence that my client received. If you are talking about damage from a standpoint of what he released—embarrassment. Embarrassment was the most damage.”

In a press conference after the sentencing, Bradley Manning’s lawyer read a statement from Manning himself. “Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” wrote Manning.

A congressional official who had been briefed by the State Department in late 2010 and early 2011 told Reuters “the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.”  The revelations, the congressional aide, “were embarrassing but not damaging.”

“He was sentenced the way we would sentence somebody who committed murder.”

Manning will immediately appeal for clemency to the court martial Convening Authority, Major General Jeffery Buchanan, commander of the Military District of Washington, who can dismiss any guilty findings and reduce the sentence. Buchanan cannot, however, reverse a finding of not guilty or increase Manning’s sentence.  After a review by Buchanan, Manning’s case will be automatically appealed to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

Manning’s lead civilian defense counsel also announced that he is applying for a presidential pardon for his client. The application to President Obama will be joined by a partnership between Amnesty International and the Bradley Manning Support Network on to commute his sentence to time served.

President Obama said in April 2011, “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. [Manning] broke the law.”  Manning’s defense team characterized Obama’s comments as unlawful command influence. They also sought and were denied the opportunity to depose the president.

Manning is expected to serve his sentence at Fort Leavenworth, where he has been in pretrial confinement since April 2011. Prior to that Manning was held in pre-trial confinement at Marine Corp Base Quantico Brig for nine months. U.N. special rapporteur on torture Juan Ernesto Mendez called his treatment at the Quantico Brig “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Manning was forced to strip and remain on a suicide risk regime against the recommendations of Brig mental health professionals. Lind ruled that a portion of his time at Quantico was unlawful, but granted Manning only 112 days of credit on his sentence for it. Manning sentence’s of 35 years will also be reduced by 1,293 days for time already served.

Despite being placed in pretrial confinement longer than any accused awaiting court martial, Lind ruled that the USG did not violate Manning’s right to a speedy trial. (Many witnesses during the motions phase of the trial concerning Manning’s unlawful treatment at Quantico could not remember events clearly because they were so long ago.)

Manning directed defense counsel to only engage with the press using text-based media, and to be as “accurate as possible, and try to get to the actual topic and try to be as factual as possible, and try to be as neutral as possible.”

Manning ultimately opted to be tried by military judge alone instead of a panel of officers and enlisted personnel. During the pre-trial, the prosecution blocked Manning’s defense from adding questions to a questionnaire for panel members intended to determine potential bias towards gay and/or transgendered people.

The Washington Post reported recently that Judge Lind was recently promoted to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, where Manning’s case will automatically be appealed if he is convicted of more than one year.

The defense strategy at trial was as much about mitigating as acquitting. During sentencing, defense emphasized that Manning was young, naive, and good intentioned. They called a forensic psychiatrist who testified that “Pfc. Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars, actually.”

Manning’s defense sought an appropriate sentence that would enable Manning to still have a life, asking the judge not to “rob him of his youth,” adding that Manning, “is a young man who certainly, at this time, was, in fact, young—was, in fact, naive as to the second and third effects, but certainly was good intentioned. “ Defense ended by saying, “Pfc. Manning cared about human life. He was a humanist. His biggest crime was that he cared about loss of life that he was seeing.”

When asked if Manning received a fair trial, Coombs said, “The perception is no.  He didn’t receive a fair trial and that should be problematic for people—that should be problematic for our military, and hopefully that will be problematic for the president of the Unites States and he should do something about it.”

Since January 2011, Alexa O’Brien has covered the WikiLeaks release of US State Department Cables, JTF memoranda known as the ‘GTMO files’,  revolutions across Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen, as well as the prosecution of Bradley Manning and the US investigation into WikiLeaks.