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 

146 comments
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

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. 

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.

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. 


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.

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.