Viewpoint: Overzealous Prosecution of Bradley Manning Backfired

In the end, the final casualty may be America's reputation as a bastion of freedom

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning is escorted by military police as he arrives for his sentencing at military court facility for the sentencing phase of his trial on August 21, 2013 in Fort Meade, Md.

In handing down a 35-year sentence for Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who admitted leaking nearly three-quarters of a million classified documents to WikiLeaks, Judge Denise Lind has issued a tacit rebuke to the U.S. government. After three years of prosecutorial overreach, during which Manning spent nine months in solitary confinement, in violation of the military’s own regulations, while Army prosecutors sought a sentence of life without parole plus more than one hundred years, the judge has given the soldier only 10 years more than he offered to serve in a plea deal to as the trial began. Manning could be eligible for parole in little more than a decade.

(MORE: Leaker Bradley Manning Sentenced to 35 Years)

A sentence of 35 years in military prison is no small thing, but it’s worth looking back at where Manning stood as his legal troubles began. Shortly after he was arrested in late May 2010, he was placed under “prevention of injury” watch, where he remained in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement for the better part of a year. While WikiLeaks and its media partners released the documents he’d sent them over the months following Manning’s arrest, a parade of government officials took to the airwaves to warn of the grave and irreparable harm the soldier had done, demanding the harshest punishment for the perpetrator. For the crime of communicating classified information to journalists, attorneys representing the government bucked tradition by seeking to convict Manning of aiding the enemy, the military’s equivalent of treason. A U.S. Congressman called publicly for Manning’s execution.

Today’s decision is harsh punishment indeed, particularly when considered alongside the six years served by Charles Graner, whose sadism as the ring leader at Abu Ghraib did more damage than Manning’s leaks ever did. But when compared with the hysteria that characterized the official response to Manning’s leaks three years ago, a sentence of 35 years with a chance at parole and perhaps credit for time served begins to look rather tame. We were told, as we are always told when the state loses track of its secrets, that the sky was falling, and yet there it is suspended safely above. I won’t be surprised if, as the years go by with the sky securely in place, Manning’s sentence is reduced further.

In the end, the overzealous prosecution of Manning looks to have been a colossal waste of time — and moral authority — for the U.S. The soldier confessed his guilt for crimes sufficient to land him in prison for more than two decades, and publicly apologized for the recklessness of his actions. For the crime of being an idealistic 22-year-old who spilled poorly protected secrets that, not incidentally, revealed serious malfeasance, 20-plus years seems plenty.

(MORE: Field of Dishonor: Famous American Court-Martials)

The government’s overreach in its prosecution of Manning was, in all likelihood, not intended principally to punish the soldier on trial, but to deter any future Mannings from becoming leakers. In this purpose the government appears to have failed. Edward Snowden, whose NSA leaks have spurred a fierce national debate about the ballooning surveillance state, has called Manning a “classic whistleblower” and apparently studied Manning’s mistakes so as not to repeat them.

But, as anyone who has resorted to violence with a noncompliant inanimate object knows, overreaction has a way of harming the overreactor as much as the overreactee. A new precedent has been set, an American citizen in the 21st century charged with treason for communicating with a journalist, another stain on America’s reputation as a bastion of press freedom. I’m reminded of the scene from A Man for All Seasons, where William Roper tells Sir Thomas More he’d “cut down every law in England” if he could get the devil, and More asks in reply where Roper would turn for protection once the devil turned around on him, all the laws in England having been cut down.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you think Bradley Manning is the devil — the government’s overzealous prosecution of him has harmed all of us who care about a free press in a vibrant democracy. The final casualty of America’s overenthusiastic prosecution of Bradley Manning is America itself.

MORE: The Surveillance Society 

127 comments
GeorgeC
GeorgeC

Hmm...Guard against all enemies both foreign and domestic....

When your domestic superiors are doing far more harm to this country than the foreign enemies, blowing the whistle is sometimes the only way to fulfill that oath.  

While I agree that they both broke the law, and should be punished for their illegal actions, Snowden and Manning both exposed a lot of corruption, illegal actions, cover-ups and unconstitutional behavior by dozens of people with a lot of power and authority but practically no responsibility, who should all be prosecuted at least as vigorously, if not more so, as they are older, smarter and much, much, much more morally corrupt.  The Manning trial should have been overshadowed by the hundreds of trials which never happened, of all of the corrupt and incompetent people we have entrusted our safety to.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

i didn't know matt damon was his lawyer

rvholtzmann
rvholtzmann

Talk  about a sky-is-falling mentality! How long have we been hearing journalists speak of slippery slopes, chilling effect, country in peril, etc. - yet here we are, in 2013, with a government and national security apparatus that leaks secrets on a daily basis. 

gammaginga
gammaginga

Thanks for this piece. Will you please comment on the UK destruction of Guardian hard drives, the detention of David Miranda and the US persecution of Snowden. This is all very frightening,

ShawnArscott
ShawnArscott

The USA has lost all credibility - how low can the US go putting a person speaking the truth. This does not bode well for the world. It is up to us to say NO to these atrocities being committed against humanity in the name of "democracy" and "freedom". We are in a fascist police state. We are being lied to in every which way. We have no knowledge or wisdom. Our lives are reflecting our lack of wisdom in the cruel wars, the escalating health problems, the corruption of our food, water, air and the hatred that is broadcast every day by the media. How so very sad for humanity. It is up to us to change this downward spiral and begin to live with truth, dignity and integrity. Let's start to enjoy the beautiful planet Earth we live on, instead of trashing it and live with awe and gratitude at the miracle of life. PEace to ALL.

DanBruce
DanBruce

This article is simply book promotion. Shame on you. Shame on TIME.

luvstuff5
luvstuff5

The fact remains that Manning committed treason and in most sane countries would have been executed, especially that as a member of the military he has sworn to protect and uphold the laws of the country.

SamSweden
SamSweden

To the millions of Europeans like me and to rest of the world for that matter, we are thankful to Bradley Manning for exposing the wrong doings of his US leaders. To all of us and to many Americans he is a courageous hero. Let us not forget that according to his early trial, the judge declared that his action did not harm any one...

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Try spending 35 days in prison before you opinion that 35 years is lenient. Most murderers of the 1st degree spend less time than this troubled moron was sentenced to endure. The judge is right, Bradley Manning is not a spy, undermining his compatriots safety for money, and the war on terror does not imply a state of war judicial rootlessness. The 35 years sentence is enough to deter other would be leakers, and that's enough. No need for vengeance when the real responsibility is with the people who cleared a low ranking confused young soldier access to the top secrets files. There are many security officers/officials who erred - but none will suffer even 1% of Bradley Manning punishment. 

richard.draucker
richard.draucker

Those who murdered Reuters reporter Namir Noor-Eldeen remain free, never so much as charged; while the man who exposed the murder gets 35 years in prison for having done so.  

So much for America being a bastion of justice and freedom.  

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

MEMO TO TIME MAGAZINE EDITORIAL STAFF:  This author is intentionally misleading his readers with the following statements:

1) "For the crime of being an idealistic 22-year-old who spilled poorly protected secrets that, not incidentally, revealed serious malfeasance..."

Manning may have been personally 'idealistic,' but (as a member of the armed forces) he was under oath to faithfully serve his country.  He may not have agreed with NSA practices, but that did not give him permission to then disclose highly sensitive information to unapproved sources, who could then do God-knows-what with that info.  In essence, Manning was a law-breaker, and betrayed the trust of those who entrusted with him those responsibilities.

2) "A new precedent has been set, an American citizen in the 21st century charged with treason for communicating with a journalist..."

That statement is 100% false.  American citizens may certainly communicate with journalists/media outlets.  However, those communications must not divulge sensitive information about companies/organizations/etc..  Communicating in such a manner can result in termination of an employee for, 'disclosing trade secrets [etc.].'  That's true at my place of employment (a major Fortune 500 company), and elsewhere too.

What Manning did was (essentially) illegally disclose hundreds of thousands of 'trade secrets' to a 'journalist' (Wikileaks).  That information could jeopardize innumerable operations, put peoples' life at risk, and make such intelligence-gathering much more difficult in the future (further jeopardizing our security).  For those reasons, Manning was rightfully found guilty of treason.

It is ridiculous that a reader should have to point out the obvious to a media outlet like TIME Magazine.  By approving a drivel-laden article such as this, TIME essentially shows how low its journalistic standards can go.  It's shameful that TIME is defending such an obvious danger to our country.

ParisMunich
ParisMunich

Those soldiers killing innocent people in their own countries - those are the traitors. Those responsible for illegitimate wars and prisons - raping the American constitution, everything the country is supposed to stand for and the reputation of its people - those are the traitors. Why are Americans allowing their leaders to loot the nation's wealth and turn a once great country into a divided, reviled, bankrupt mess?

BradleyFurr
BradleyFurr

Death by fireing squad should be the punishment he signed the papers to join the military then he had clerance to the classified information. Simple solution make a example out of him in WWII he would have been shot. People are forgetting today the tradgities of yesterday. Why do they show him in uniform he is no member of the U.S. military!!! Death to traitors

TheoYolotalk
TheoYolotalk

The USA:
From a democratic state in to a police state.

You only need someone like Kim Jong-un..

JuanViche
JuanViche

Wanta! Black Swan, White Hat -

How the US Government Stole $23 Trillion from the American People

First time video interview with Lee Wanta

http://tekgnosis.typepad.com/tekgnosis/2013/08/ambassador-lee-wanta-video-interview-plus-more.html

http://tekgnosis.typepad.com/tekgnosis/2013/08/wanta-black-swan-white-hat-for-immediate-release.html

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_AZRKDabXz6a01fUWlIdE9XSW8&usp=sharing (download pdf, podcast interviews, video interview plus more here)

LogicSpeaks
LogicSpeaks

@BillPearlman Not to mention that what Bradley Manning shared with us was disturbing.  The fact that the killing of unarmed civilians happened on a large scale should trouble you, current soldier, veteran, or not.  The information he leaked showed numerous videos of killing civilians.  This should trouble you.  However, if you're a bigot, then you probably do not care for lives outside of the american military.  Like everyone who thinks he should have been executed, they should think long and hard as to what kind of abuse of power Manning shared. 

SamSweden
SamSweden

@BillPearlman Your hateful message to Manning is an insult to the thousands of your fellow American families who lost their dear ones killed unnecessary as soldiers in Iraq, as a the result of the illegal invasion of Iraq ordered by war criminal Bush and his cronies, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the neo-cons...Manning did a heroic act by revealing all those war documents and as GeorgeC below mentioned and I quote him :" When your domestic superiors are doing far more harm to this country than the foreign enemies, blowing the whistle is sometimes the only way to fulfil that oath".  Shame on you BillPearlman

MatthewCooke
MatthewCooke

@luvstuff5 "The fact remains" that blind loyalty is acceptable for dogs not men. Executing someone for following a higher moral compass is not "sane" in the slightest. 

richard.draucker
richard.draucker

@luvstuff5 No he didn't.  The charge of treason was thrown out by the judge. Futher, members of he military are sworn to uphold the laws of the country and defend the nation.  They are not sworn to participate in a conspiracy against the people of the nation on behalf of their superiors or other government officials. 


MatthewCooke
MatthewCooke

@mrbomb13 MEMO TO A PROPAGANDA SHILL ON THE INTERNET:

1) Murder of civilians, sanctioned torture, and illegal and immoral acts are indeed "highly sensitive" to those who would cover that up. If you want that covered up, you too are engaged in criminal acts against the people MR BOMB.

2) "Sensitive information"Ok  — there you go with your 1984 worthy double talk.  Would you like the US government to keep the following "Trade secrets" from us with Bradley exposed:

a) Guantanamo prison has held mostly innocent people and low-level operatives.

b) U.S. officials were told to cover up evidence of child abuse by contractors in Afghanistan.

c) There is an official policy to ignore torture in Iraq.

d) There is an official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. (109,000 deaths in Iraq, with 66,081 classified as non-combatants. This means that for every Iraqi death that is classified as a combatant, two innocent men, women or children are also killed)

I could go on for a long time... But the point is that the American people like myself, deserve to know what our tax dollars are paying for — so we can vote Obama and Bush before him, all of congress and any other democrat or republican warmonger out of office so that this corrupt and humanitarian nightmare of foreign policy ends. THAT would be in the best interest of the security of the US citizenry and the rest of our brothers and sisters across the world.

It is only the propaganda against the whistleblower that is shameful Mr Bomb. What a name btw. Sad.

richard.draucker
richard.draucker

@mrbomb13

> he was under oath to faithfully serve his country. 

You seem confused by the difference between serving one's country and serving the criminal goals of some political elites to the detriment of the country.  Thomas Jefferson thought he made that difference clear. 


 

bgarr99
bgarr99

@mrbomb13 My understanding is that communicating classified information to a journalist is illegal but historically has not been considered treason. Treason would be directly and intentionally helping your enemy. Therefore charging Manning with treason was a new concept.

TanmayLololAnaisPradhan
TanmayLololAnaisPradhan

@mrbomb13 Trade secrets ? Trade secrets ?!?!?!? TRADE SECRETS ?!?!?!? The murder and genocide that was covered up, was trade secrets ?????

The crimes hidden and covered up and swept under the carpet by the government, were trade secrets ??

Are you a lawyer ? Are you a particularly useless sh***y lawyer ?

BradleyFurr
BradleyFurr

So your telling me 700,000 leaked classified documents to USA SECRETS is tnot treason? 25 years they need to be kept secret. How is that not treason and the I dot writer said some pictures are more damaging then 700,000 documents what a waste of time you are

gammaginga
gammaginga

@BradleyFurr Have you noticed that the men who escorted Manning into and out of the courthouse are wearing civilian clothing? The military which you idolize (as do I in certain circumstances not present here) doesn't appear to exist around military jails and courthouses. Why complain that Manning wears a uniform and not complain that his "keepers" don't? The military has been outsourced, even on our own soil!

richard.draucker
richard.draucker

@BradleyFurr

> Why do they show him in uniform he is no member of the U.S. military!!! 

Uh, it was a military court that just sentenced him to 35 years in a military prison.  I guess now that he's no member of the U.S. military they'll have to start all over.  

Don't you have some innocent civilians, babies, or small children you're supposed to be slaughtering to further the personal ambitions of a select few elitist politicians under the guise of defending the U.S.? 


bgarr99
bgarr99

@BradleyFurr This is nothing like WWII. His leaks have caused mostly embarrassment to the government and military for mistakes they made and should own up to. He shouldn't walk free but you should consider the damage done and type of information leaked.

dataminingmydata
dataminingmydata

@BradleyFurrYou want him dead just as the enemy is does and he is one of yours? A simple reveal of the inner-workings of what our tax-payer dollars go to which reveals an awful mess of the government. Should your government not represent you? Perhaps we should continue this perpetual warfare..

SamSweden
SamSweden

@richard.draucker @luvstuff5 Well said richard.draucker ! Of course Manning did not commit treason...In witnessing the illegal invasion of Iraq ordered by Bush and his cronies : Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the ne-cons, therefore  Manning as a soldier in Iraq, witnessing the death of thousand of his fellow American and Allied soldiers not to mention the tens of thousands of the death of Iraqi innocent civilians and millions of Iraqis displaced from their home. witnessing all this, Manning conscious did not allow him to turn a blind eye on these inhuman atrocities and by leaking all the documents about this illegal war, instead of being praised, Manning is now imprisoned for his heroic act. In fact the people that should be locked in prison are the ones who ordered this illegal invasion of Iraq : war criminal Bush and his cronies...As for you luvstuff5:  your hateful message to Manning is an insult to your thousand fellow American families who lost their dear ones killed unnecessary as soldiers in Iraq.

JimBalter
JimBalter

@BradleyFurr That's right, it's not treason. "How is that not treason" -- sorry, it takes an IQ greater than that of a turnip to understand it.