Bradley Manning, the junior Army analyst convicted of espionage for leaking thousands of classified documents, was sentenced to 35 years in prison Wednesday, reigniting a debate over how far the government should go to punish those who disclose secret information.
The sentence was far less than the 60-year imprisonment military prosecutors had sought and the 90-year maximum sentence the 20 convictions against him carried. Manning will appeal the ruling and will be eligible for parole after serving seven years at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., his attorney said.
Prosecutors said the 700,000 war logs and diplomatic cables as well as battlefield video footage the former Marylander released to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks jeopardized U.S. military operations. They said a stiff sentence would send a message to others thinking about releasing classified information.
Government watchdog groups said the case may have instead sent a more muddled message.
"If anything I think the government's overreaction, overcharging and selective prosecution of Manning has encouraged other people to blow the whistle," said Jesselyn Radack with the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for whistle-blowers. "It doesn't seem to be having the chilling effect that the government wants it to."
Army Col. Denise Lind, who has heard the case at Fort Meade without a jury, offered no explanation of the sentence. Speaking for less than two minutes, she reduced Manning's rank to private and said he would be dishonorably discharged. Manning's prison time will be cut by 1,294 days for the time he has already served since his arrest in May 2010, she said.
Witnesses in the courtroom said spectators shouted, "We'll keep fighting for you, Bradley," as Manning was whisked from the room by military police. In addition to journalists, about 45 people appeared in court for the sentence and another 30 watched from an overflow room.
Defense attorney David Coombs said it was Manning who consoled his legal team after the sentence was delivered.
"Myself and others were in tears because this means a lot to us," Coombs said. "He looks to me and he says, 'It's OK. It's all right. … I'm going to be OK.'"
The sentence capped a nearly three-month court-martial but it fit into a broader debate in Washington about government secrecy versus national security that has only grown more intense in recent weeks. That discussion is being driven by another young intelligence worker, Edward Snowden, who revealed domestic spying programs at the National Security Agency.
Intelligence officials released new documents Wednesday showing that the NSA may have unintentionally collected as many as 56,000 e-mails a year from Americans between 2008 and 2011.
Snowden was recently granted political asylum in Russia.
Coombs described Manning's case as a "watershed moment" for freedom of the press, and he argued that the sentence would send a "chilling" message to potential future leakers. He noted the broader concern watchdog groups have raised for years about the over-classification of government documents.
Advocates for government transparency offered mixed predictions about the impact the court-martial will have on deterring other leaks.
"When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system," said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the unusual nature of the Manning case may limit its potential to influence others. The scope of Manning's disclosures was unprecedented, he noted, and not all of the documents would fall under a traditional definition of whistle-blowing.
"It certainly signals a determination on the part of the government to combat unauthorized disclosures and in that sense it may be chilling," Aftergood said. "But I don't think this case is a paradigm for future leakers."
Military legal experts described an appels process that would take years and that could, potentially, be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Manning's first post-court martial appeal will be for clemency from the Army official who convened the trial, in this case the commanding general of the Military District of Washington, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan.
Buchanan can reduce Manning's sentence but not increase it. Army officials said there is no timeline for that process.
"It's a serious sentence, [but] obviously it's not what the government asked for," said Eugene R. Fidell, a military law expert at Yale Law School. "I would call it 'high-ish,' but I wouldn't assume that where it begins is where it ends."