Col. Denise R. Lind, the Army judge who sentenced Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison today after finding him guilty of turning hundreds of thousands of classified documents over to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, clearly did not buy prosecutors' arguments that he was a self-aggrandizing traitor who deserved to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Nor did she completely accept the defense's claim that Mr. Manning was an emotionally troubled young man who had acted only out of patriotism to alert Americans to what he perceived to be government wrongdoing committed in their name. Ultimately, the judgment she rendered took into account the many complexities of this case in a way that balanced compassion with the requirements of the law.
While we believe the sentence Mr. Manning received is still excessive in proportion to whatever harm his actions may have caused, there is no doubt of his guilt on the charges for which he was sentenced. Mr. Manning admitted giving WikiLeaks more than 700,000 classified documents that included war logs and diplomatic cables, as well as battlefield video footage that he illegally downloaded while working as a junior intelligence analyst in Iraq. Prosecutors had also accused him of aiding the enemy, a more serious offense that alone could have carried a life sentence, but Judge Lind dismissed that charge before finding him guilty of the lesser crimes last month.
Many Americans regard Mr. Manning as a hero for exposing aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the government would rather have remained hidden from view. Among the materials Mr. Manning gave WikiLeaks were evidence documenting the abuses of detainees by Iraqi officers under the supervision of American forces and records indicating that civilian deaths during the Iraq war were likely far greater than official estimates suggested. One of the most harrowing documents was a video taken from an American attack helicopter over Baghdad in 2007 that showed excited gunner crews mowing down Iraqi civilians, including two Arab journalists.
Mr. Manning's attorney, David Coombs, argued that his client believed he was doing his country a service by exposing such abuses and that Mr. Manning never intended to harm America's war effort or put its people at risk. He also cited Mr. Manning's difficulty in resolving his gender identity in a war zone and his uncertainties about where he fit in. In raising the latter issue, Mr. Coombs implicitly criticized Army commanders for putting Mr. Manning in a situation where he would be involved in sensitive intelligence matters even though they knew he was experiencing serious emotional problems.
Prosecutors had sought a 60-year sentence for Mr. Manning, arguing that his revelations irrevocably harmed national security, jeopardized relations with U.S. allies and put many foreign informants whom the military depends on in danger. They also urged the judge to treat Mr. Manning harshly in order to dissuade other would-be leakers from following his example.
But though the government called dozens of witnesses to testify to the damage caused by Mr. Manning's actions, in the end Judge Lind appears to have concluded that despite his indiscriminate exposure of government secrets — Mr. Manning seems not even to have read most of the documents before turning them over to WikiLeaks — the harm done to the nation did not rise to a level that would justify keeping him in prison well into his 80s. As it is, the sentence he has been given is the longest ever handed down in a case involving a leak of classified information to the public.
Under military law, Mr. Manning will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, though there is no guarantee he would be released at that time. He will also get a little more than three years' credit for the time he has already served and for 112 days in custody, when the judge ruled he was mistreated after his arrest. He may also appeal his sentence, though that process could likely drag on for years. But we believe there's no reason Mr. Manning should still be behind bars when he reaches his 60s, let alone his 80s.