UPDATED Aug. 21 at 1:41 p.m.
Bradley Manning, the Army private responsible for the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history, was sentenced to 35 years in prison Wednesday by a military judge.
The sentence was considerably less than the lifetime sentence Manning faced under the original charges brought by the government, including aiding the enemy, for which he was acquitted. It was also nearly half of the 60 years recommended by the prosecutors after he was convicted in July of leaking information and six violations of the Espionage Act. Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, had previously suggested that Manning face only 25 years in prison, given that the information he leaked would likely be declassified after that time.
Manning, 25, was dishonorably discharged and had his rank reduced to private and his pay forfeited. He will get credit for three and a half years already served in prison. If he serves his entire term, he would be a free man at the age of 58, but under military rules he could become eligible for parole after serving one third of his sentence. He has admitted to leaking roughly 700,000 military and diplomatic documents, including classified video of a helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two civilians, including a photographer for Reuters.
Hours after the verdict was read, Coombs told reporters that he would pursue through the Army chain of command a presidential pardon of Manning, or a commutation of his sentence to time served. Neither outcome is likely. “We’re a nation of laws,” President Obama said in 2011, when asked about Manning. “We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.”
For much of the Manning trial, the only suspense was the length of the sentence Manning would face. In the opening rounds, Manning had pled guilty to the basic facts of the case. The issues debated over a three month trial focused on his motivations, the degree of malice he held for his country, and the harm the leaks did to U.S. interests. Prosecutors portrayed him as an anarchist who took pleasure in harming the United States. Manning’s defense portrayed him as a whistleblower driven to expose misdeeds by the U.S. government, and they noted that he suffered from psychological problems brought on by his own gender identity issues and the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. A picture of Manning in a wig and lipstick was presented as evidence of his feelings that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body.
The sentence may be a harbinger of the punishment National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden will face if he is captured by U.S. authorities. Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia, has admitted to the theft and release of a vast trove of information that was far more highly classified than the Manning documents. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it will not seek the death penalty against Snowden, but there is little doubt that the government seeks to use his punishment to discourage future leakers.
In the sentencing phase of the trial on Aug. 14, Manning had addressed the court directly, repeatedly apologizing for his actions. “At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing, and they are continuing to affect me,” he said. “Although they have caused me considerable difficulty in my life, these issues are not an excuse for my actions. I understood what I was doing and the decisions I made.”
He continued by saying that he now renounced many of the idealistic notions he held at the time of his leak. “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 on decisions of those with the proper authority,” he said. “In retrospect I should have worked more aggressively inside the system.”
Manning also told the court that after his sentence he hoped to have time to go to college, “to be a better person,” and to have a meaningful relationship with his sister and her family. Given the length of his sentence and his young age, both remain possible.