Bradley Manning’s Sentence Doesn’t Mean His Story Is Going Away

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Supporters of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning hold up banners and signs as they protest outside of the gates at Fort Meade, Md., Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, before a sentencing hearing in Manning's court martial. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Aug. 21, 2013, 6:52 a.m.

Army Pfc. Brad­ley Man­ning, who leaked a massive trove of clas­si­fied doc­u­ments to WikiLeaks, was sen­tenced to 35 years in pris­on Wed­nes­day morn­ing. Man­ning was con­victed on Ju­ly 30 of most of the charges levied against him, in­clud­ing of­fenses un­der the Es­pi­on­age Act. He did, however, man­age to es­cape the most ser­i­ous charge of “aid­ing the en­emy.” Man­ning’s rank was also re­duced, and he was dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged from the Army.

The gov­ern­ment had asked Judge Den­ise Lind for a 60-year sen­tence for Man­ning, out of a max­im­um of 90 years. Man­ning’s at­tor­ney, Dav­id Coombs, asked for le­ni­ency to al­low Man­ning “to have a life,” em­phas­iz­ing Man­ning’s per­son­al struggles and his hu­man­ity. “His biggest crime was, he cared about the loss of life he was see­ing and was strug­gling with,” Coombs said dur­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ments this week.

The 35-year sen­tence, while not the most le­ni­ent, is still ob­vi­ously much light­er than the gov­ern­ment was look­ing for. The sen­tence also in­cludes 1,294 days already served. If he serves a full sen­tence, Man­ning, who is 25, will be re­leased when he is 56. With good con­duct, he could be re­leased much earli­er, be­cause he is eli­gible for pa­role after serving at least one-third of his sen­tence.

Man­ning’s sen­tence doesn’t quite end this story. He still has a large sup­port base, from WikiLeaks’ Ju­li­an As­sange and Noam Chom­sky to groups of act­iv­ists. In re­sponse to the sen­ten­cing, Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al is­sued a state­ment call­ing on Pres­id­ent Obama to com­mute Man­ning’s sen­tence to time served “to al­low his im­me­di­ate re­lease.” The Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights called for a full par­don. The Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on called Wed­nes­day “a sad day for all Amer­ic­ans who de­pend on brave whis­tleblowers and a free press for a fully in­formed pub­lic de­bate.” And as many oth­ers noted on Twit­ter, it’s not as if 35 years in pris­on is a vic­tory for his sup­port­ers.

And even though the Man­ning case is unique, there’s already some pre­ced­ent for dec­ades-long de­bate over sen­tence re­duc­tions or par­dons for high-pro­file in­mates. The much short­er sen­tence than the gov­ern­ment was look­ing for might be a bit of an im­me­di­ate head­ache. But the years of at­ten­tion and de­bate to come will likely make sure the story doesn’t end any­time soon.

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