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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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.

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