FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - Former Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison and dishonorably discharged Wednesday for his disclosures of state secrets to WikiLeaks.
Though Col. Denise Lind warned spectators not to disturb the hearing, which wrapped up in under five minutes, a gasp was heard after the military judge read the sentence.
Two sergeants-at-arms appeared angered - grabbing Manning roughly and pulling him from the courtroom - as dozens of supporters began shouting words of encouragement to their whistle-blower: "We'll keep fighting for you;" "You're a hero;" and "Thank you, Bradley."
Like his sister and aunt seated in the audience, Manning remained composed during the reading of his sentence. The wife of lead defense attorney David Coombs meanwhile cried in her seat.
It has been over three weeks since Lind convicted
Manning for committing the biggest intelligence breach in U.S. history, divulging battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic cables from around the globe, and profiles of Guantanamo detainees.
Manning has already served 1,293 days in prison since his arrest in May 2010. That time will be subtracted from the 25-year-old's sentence.
He will earn another 112-day credit for enduring "unlawful pretrial punishment" during his nine-month stint at a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., where he spent more than 23 hours a day in an 8-by-6 foot cell.
These allowances combine to chip nearly four years off the sentence Manning will serve in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. His rank has been reduced to private, and parole becomes available after a third of the sentence is served, meaning that Manning could be freed before his 40th birthday.
A lengthy sentence posed an especially difficult threat for Manning amid evidence that the soldier explored a female identity before his disclosures to WikiLeaks caught up with him.
Manning announced that he preferred to be identified as male as trial approached, and Ft. Leavenworth recently disclosed
that it does not follow the lead of other federal prisons in offering inmates hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery.
Speaking to reporters this afternoon, defense attorney Coombs shouted out Courthouse News for breaking the news of what services of this nature would be available to Manning in prison.
The lawyer promised to do everything he can to make sure Manning "gets the care he needs."
Coombs said he had taken comfort from Manning meanwhile after the reading of the sentence.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks and its asylum-cloaked leader Julian Assange, condemned Wednesday's proceedings.
"We are outraged that a whistleblower and a patriot has been sentenced on a conviction under the Espionage Act," the nonprofit announced. "The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistle-blowers and journalists willing to publish their information. We can only hope that Manning's courage will continue to inspire others who witness state crimes to speak up."
In his earlier statements, Manning said he leaked these files to provoke debate about the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and warfare, and that he carefully selected categories of files that he believed would not damage national security.
His supporters credit the disclosures for bringing an early end to the Iraq War, inspiring the toppling of autocrats during the so-called Arab Spring, and shining light on unaccountable military contractors and drone warfare.
At the conference with Coombs this afternoon, they wore T-shirts asking President Barack Obama to "Pardon Bradley." Amnesty International called for commutation of the sentence to time served in a statement after the sentencing.
Manning also pleaded for such relief in a long statement that his lawyer read.
The letter to Obama predicts that U.S. military action in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, would be viewed in the context of the country's darkest moments, including the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott
decision, McCarthyism and Japanese-American internment.
"There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people," Manning said, quoting the late historian Howard Zinn.
The remarks recall statements Manning made previously after his arrest, a sharp turn from the apologies he made last week after admitting to having "hurt people" and "hurt the United States" with his disclosures. Coombs immediately took to his Twitter account after that statement to share denials of this sentiment from WikiLeaks and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Despite official pronouncements that WikiLeaks had blood on its hands, the prosecution's sentencing case could not directly trace a single death to any particular disclosure. Prosecutors attribute this fact to extensive efforts shuttling people out of harm's way, and a nine-month operation to warn Afghan villagers about the risk of possible retribution.
The classified sessions of Manning's trial remain a mystery, but testimony delivered in open court cast doubt on the contentions that Manning's leaks served as a propaganda trove and a military playbook for terrorists. Indeed, the government's terrorism expert could not indentify more than one al-Qaida video and magazine article to show its reliance on the 700,000 files published by WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors claimed that the battlefield reports helped insurgents plan more effective attacks, but statistics show that fatalities from such strikes declined dramatically in the wake of the leaks.
Manning had faced a 90-year maximum sentence after he was convicted on 20 counts including violations of the Espionage Act, and prosecutors wanted Lind to impose 60 years.
Calling the 35-year sentence "shocking and inappropriate," Brady Kiesling, a diplomat of 20 years who resigned in protest of the Iraq war, lamented the lack of exploration into what motivated the disclosures to WikiLeaks.
"Manning's was an unplanned, awkward step toward open diplomacy," Kiesling said in an email. "As an indication of the potential viability of the concept, I think it serves reasonably well. During the trial, however, the State was determined not to let such disturbing, potentially democratizing ideas emerge, and the defense, perhaps prudently (35 years is better than 90, I guess), did not make much of a political fight."
Coombs had similar words of praise for Manning after the sentencing. "Make no mistake about it, the cancer of overclassification is threatening the very fabric of our free society," the defense attorney told reporters.
Though a different attorney will handle Manning's appeal, Coombs has vowed to assist Manning on the process of clemency.
As the case goes to higher courts for review, experts on military law warn about harsh judgment that history will cast on its legacy for transparency in government.
"Public confidence in the administration of justice is not served by the government's eye-dropper approach to transparency and insistence on treating court records as a matter to be resolved under the Freedom of Information Act," Yale's military law expert Eugene Fidell said in an email.
The Military District of Washington revealed that, by the end of the government's sentencing case, about one-eighth of the roughly 40,000-page case file over the course of the three-month trial is under seal.
Closed-door hearings were arranged in the trial for all testimony related to specific diplomatic cables, the identities of five Guantanamo detainees deemed significant to the case, and a portion of the testimony about improvised explosive devices.
Transparency advocate Steven Aftergood, for the Federation of American Scientists, noted that such secrecy breeds "skepticism" about the justice of a trial's outcome.
"We don't know as much as we have a right to know about the government's view of the damage caused by the Manning disclosures," Aftergood said in an email. "The degree of damage is (or ought to be) a major factor in determining the severity of the sentence. But the details are classified, which is a source of frustration if not skepticism."
Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, wrote an op-ed recently comparing the Manning case to that of his parents, who were executed for disclosing nuclear secrets to the Russian government.
Declassified Soviet cables exonerated Ethel years later, and revealed Julius to be a low-level spy without access to nuclear information, Meeropol said.
Commenting on this article, Aftergood said, "In retrospect, the execution of Ethel Rosenberg today seems like a grotesque injustice, though it is also clear that Julius Rosenberg was engaged in espionage, contrary to what his defenders originally claimed."
The Center for Constitutional Rights also called Manning's prosecution a "show trial," "frontal assault on the First Amendment," and "travesty of justice."
It credits the soldier with "bring[ing] to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"Every aspect of this case sets a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions of whistle-blowers - who play an essential role in democratic government by telling us the truth about government wrongdoing - and we fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case," the group added.