Above: Courtroom sketch: Bill Hennessy/Reuters
Sometimes things that are fully expected still have the capacity to shock. That’s certainly the case with the news that the former Army private Bradley Manning has been sentenced to thirty-five years in military prison for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. My colleague Amy Davidson, who has been writing about the Manning story since the beginning, has a post on the verdict, which contains more details. I’ll confine myself to three points:
1. Make no mistake, the sentence is draconian.
Judge Denise Lind, an Army colonel, didn’t give Manning the full sixty years in prison that the prosecution wanted, but the whistle-blower still faces the same sort of prison term handed out to murderers and gangsters. Assuming he follows the rules, he will be eligible for parole after eight years (a third of the sentence minus three and a half years, for time served). Even if he is released then, he will have been in prison for well over a decade.
Military justice is meant to be harsh: it’s designed to maintain discipline on and off the battlefield. But this isn’t a case of a solider deserting his post or handing secrets over to the enemy. The government’s attempts to show that Manning’s leaks aided Al Qaeda were almost laughable, although nothing about this case is amusing. As Amy notes in her post, the stated intent of the Pentagon was to frighten other would-be leakers. “There is value in deterrence, Your Honor,” one of the military prosecutors told Lind. “This court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”
But was it just a matter of deterrence? From the beginning, the Pentagon has treated Manning extremely harshly, holding him in solitary confinement for almost a year and then accusing him of aiding the enemy—a charge that carries the death penalty. (Thankfully, Lind found Manning not guilty on this count.) It certainly looked like an instance of powerful institutions and powerful people punishing a lowly private for revealing things that they would rather have kept hidden.
2. Much of the wrongdoing that Manning exposed hasn’t been dealt with nearly as harshly as he has.
Amid all the discussion of the rights and wrongs of whistle-blowing and WikiLeaks, it’s easy to forget what exactly Manning revealed. In an article last month calling for him to be pardoned, theNew Republic’s John Judis provided a useful reminder of some of the incidents captured in the battleground reports that Manning released:
American troops killing civilians, including women and children, and then calling in an airstrike to destroy evidence; the video of an American Apache helicopter gunship shooting civilians, including two Reuters reporters; American military authorities failing to investigate reports of torture and murder by Iraqi police; and a “black unit” in Afghanistan tasked to perform extrajudicial assassinations of Taliban sympathizers that killed as many as 373 civilians.
What has happened to those responsible for these acts? In most cases, not much. For example, no charges have been brought against the U.S. military personnel who were in the Apache helicopter when it opened fire in Baghdad, in July, 2007—an incident that my colleague Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about at length in his 2010 article on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. “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,” the A.C.L.U.’s Ben Wizner said in a statement. Could anybody disagree with that?
3. Even if President Obama doesn’t pardon Manning, history will.
Well before the sentence came down, supporters of Manning were busy campaigning to get him freed. There were demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere, bumper stickers, and online petitions—one of which Daniel Ellsberg, the former Department of Defense official who leaked the Pentagon Papers, helped to organize. In the wake of the verdict, more protests were planned, including a rally outside the White House on Wednesday night. Amnesty International asked President Obama to release Manning and called on the U.S. government to “turn its attention to investigating violations of human rights and humanitarian law” he helped to uncover.
It seems unlikely in the extreme that these efforts will lead anywhere. Obama has insisted all along that Manning’s case was a matter for the military authorities, and that he wasn’t going to intervene. “We’re a nation of laws,” the President said at a fundraising breakfast, in 2011. “We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate …. He broke the law.”
In helping to reveal that the U.S. authorities had repeatedly misled the public about the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg also broke the law, of course. So do most whistle-blowers who are employed by the government. But history tends to be kinder to them than the courts, and I doubt that this case will be an exception. In fifty years, people will look on the Manning case as another blot on a dark era for the United States and the values that it claims to hold dear. As for Manning himself, future historians will surely agree with Ellsberg, who, speaking to the A.P. yesterday,described him as “one more casualty of a horrible, wrongful war.”