Bradley Manning Sentenced to Military Prison for 35 Years

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Thirty-five years, that's the sentence for Private Bradley Manning for turning over reams of classified information to the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks. With time served, Manning could be eligible for parole in about 10 years. Prosecutors had asked for 60 years as a deterrent to others who might leak government secrets. Alexa O'Brien is an independent journalist who's been covering the Manning case since the beginning, and chronicling it online. I spoke with O'Brien earlier today when she was outside the military courtroom at Fort Meade, MD. She described the moment the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind delivered her judgement.

Alexa O'Brien: The sentencing happened in about two minutes, tops. She came in, she warned the court gallery that if they made any kind of outburst they would be removed. And then she swiftly gave Manning his sentence–you are sentenced to 35 years, you will be reduced to rank of Private E-1, you will have total forfeiture of pain allowances and you will be dishonorably discharged. This court is adjourned.

Werman: So if he's dishonorably discharged from the Army, where will he serve his time, in a military prison still?

O'Brien: He will serve his time in a military prison. My understanding is that the discharge actually happens after he's finished his sentence. He's expected to go back to Fort Leavenworth, where he has been serving his pretrial confinement for the last three years.

Werman: How did Manning actually react to the reading of the sentence?

O'Brien: Well, I just finished interviewing David Coombs, his defense attorney, in his first interviewing with the press really since he's represented Manning. He said that Bradley Manning looked shocked, but that Bradley Manning was in good spirits and that he was actually thanking his defense counsel for their work to represent him, and that he was ending one phase of his life and starting another.

Werman: So the prosecution had been pushing for at least 60 years in jail. Why was it less?

O'Brien: Well, you have to understand something–in this court, especially with regard to the sentence, there is no legal document giving her reasoning. Any kind of argument about how she broke down her sentence wasn't even presented. For example, it was a lump sum, it wasn't broken down by offense. Secondly, the government did not and will not make any statement to the press about why they argued for 60. To understand Manning's sentence and the gravity of it in the face of what he was charged with and fundamentally his lack of intent to harm the United States, whether he did so negligently is a matter of argument. But he is essentially being sentenced to what David Coombs said a child molester or murderer is not–I'm paraphrasing him–was not sentenced to. Understand like 35 years is actually still a very, very grave sentence for somebody who fundamentally did not disclose these documents to aid the enemy, to harm the United States. And as Coombs had characterized it in our interview, he said fundamentally the greatest damage from these leaks was that they were embarrassing.

Werman: I mean I guess this 35 years sentence has to also be seen against a background of Manning himself, a kid born to alcoholic parents, neglected by their mother who attempted suicide, gender issues. Do you think today we saw kind of a change in tone toward Manning as that narrative emerged during the trial?

O'Brien: Well, I think that the tone the US government has always had towards Manning is to essentially bury him in Fort Leavenworth. There's no question that the government has had every opportunity to show even the slightest bit of mercy in this prosecution, even by accepting his plea to 10 lesser offenses. This is accused who's gone to court, plead to what he felt he was guilty of, stipulated 50 times with the government to try and lessen the burden on the government for this trial, and what the government has come back down with is to fundamentally make sure that they could get him on anything and everything that they could get him on to send a message, as they said that they were trying to do, to make sure that this never happened again.

Werman: How soon could he be out?

O'Brien: Well, according to his defense attorney, he has more than 30 years, he's has the opportunity for parole at 10 years. And then there are other clemency, pardon and parole sort of matters and options he has. Certainly, his case will be appealed. First it will be reviewed by the General Convening Authority, Major Gen. Buchanan, the commander of the military district of Washington, who Manning can present any kind of petition to lessen his sentence or to strike down any guilty pleas. He can't increase it, he can't find him guilty where he's been found not guilty. Then it will go to ACCA, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which will review it for mistakes in fact or in law. And there are a lot of sort of issues from this long trial record. This is the longest trial record ever produced in a military court martial, 40,000 pages…speedy trial issues, unlawful pretrial confinement issues. So there'll certainly be issues that will come up on appeals that could also reduce his sentence or strike down convictions. And then there's also the clemency parole board. You know, if Manning gets off for good behavior, there are guidelines, depending on his sentence, but he definitely has the opportunity to parole in 10 years.

Werman: Independent journalist, Alexa O'Brien at Fort Meade, thanks very much for your time.

O'Brien: Thank you.

Werman: Nathan Fuller also joins us from Fort Meade. Fuller is an activist with the Bradley Manning Support Network. Nathan, tell us what your reaction is today the sentence of 35 years.

Nathan Fuller: I think it's an outrage and it's crushing really. It sends a terrible message, 35 years in jail for exposing crimes, and corruption, and abuse and things that the government wants to keep secret, but it's dealing with our tax dollars behind our backs. And yet the people that he exposed have not been prosecuted. It's really, it sends a chilling message.

Werman: I mean you must understand though the need of the military for some kind of justice and also to send a deterrent message to others.

Fuller: Well, Bradley Manning plead guilty to something that would have taken responsibility and that kind of deterring message, and that had a maximum of 20 years in jail. It would have been a much more reasonable assessment of what the actual harm was and what Bradley's intentions were, but that's not how the trial was carried out.

Werman: I mean Bradley Manning is clearly a cause you're very concerned about right now. I'm just wondering how you think Manning will be viewed say in 20 years?

Fuller: People are already calling him a political prisoner and a hero. I think that history will only look more kindly on him as we realize the value of understanding how the US conducts diplomacy and war in secret. I think people are really gonna see the value in that.

Werman: Nathan Fuller of the Bradley Manning Support Network there, speaking outside the military court at Fort Meade, MD today. The Manning case had a particular resonance for those in the military. We reached out to our online community of veterans and their families and asked them to text us their thoughts on Manning's sentence. Most had little sympathy for Manning and hoped he'd spend a long time in prison. Here's a sample of what we heard. Former active duty marine Matt Holtzman from Denver was one of many who called Manning a traitor. Holtzman wrote that "Manning could have whistle blown without giving away state secrets and endangering his fellow service members. Honestly, we have gone way too soft on traitors and should roll back to tougher sentences." Ernest Montanegro in Miami felt the same, he said, "Great, now let's do the same to Edward Snowden." There was some support for Manning. One anonymous veteran wrote to say, "Well, now he has paid for his honesty; not to respected virtue and not a freedom we have."