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

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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