(AP) — Army Pfc. Bradley Manning stood at attention in his crisp dress uniform Wednesday and learned the price he will pay for spilling an unprecedented trove of government secrets: up to 35 years in prison, the stiffest punishment ever handed out in the U.S. for leaking to the media.
Flanked by his lawyers, Manning, 25, showed no reaction as military judge Col. Denise Lind announced the sentence without explanation in a proceeding that lasted just a few minutes.
A gasp could be heard among the spectators, and one woman buried her face in her hands. Then, as guards hurried Manning out of the courtroom, about a half-dozen supporters shouted from the back: “We’ll keep fighting for you, Bradley!” and “You’re our hero!”
With good behavior and credit for the more than three years he has been held, Manning could be out in as little as seven years, said his lawyer, David Coombs. The soldier was also demoted and will be dishonorably discharged.
The sentencing fired up the long-running debate over whether Manning was a whistleblower or a traitor for giving more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents, plus battlefield footage, to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. By volume alone, it was the biggest leak of classified material in U.S. history, bigger even than the Pentagon Papers a generation ago.
In a statement from London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange decried Manning’s trial and conviction as “an affront to basic concepts of Western justice.” But he called the sentence a “significant tactical victory” because the soldier could be paroled so quickly.
Manning could have gotten 90 years behind bars. Prosecutors asked for at least 60 as a warning to other soldiers, while Manning’s lawyer suggested he get no more than 25, because some of the documents he leaked will be declassified by then.
Military prosecutors had no immediate comment on the sentence, and the White House said only that any request for a presidential pardon would be considered “like any other application.”
The case was part of an unprecedented string of prosecutions brought by the U.S. government in a crackdown on security breaches. The Obama administration has charged seven people with leaking to the media; only three people were prosecuted under all previous presidents combined.
Manning, an Army intelligence analyst from Crescent, Okla., digitally copied and released Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports and State Department cables while working in 2010 in Iraq. He also leaked video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad that mistakenly killed at least nine people, including a Reuters photographer.
Manning said he did it to expose the U.S. military’s “bloodlust” and generate debate over the wars and U.S. policy.
He was found guilty by the judge last month of 20 crimes, including six violations of the Espionage Act, but was acquitted of the most serious charge, aiding the enemy, which carried a potential life in prison without parole.
Whistleblower advocates said the punishment was unprecedented in its severity. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said “no other leak case comes close.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other activists condemned the sentence.
“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, head of the ACLU’s speech and technology project.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank and author of the book “Necessary Secrets,” welcomed Manning’s punishment.
“The sentence is a tragedy for Bradley Manning, but it is one he brought upon himself,” he said. “It will certainly serve to bolster deterrence against other potential leakers.”
But he also warned that the sentence will ensure that Edward Snowden – the National Security Agency leaker who was charged with espionage in a potentially more explosive case while Manning’s court-martial was underway – “will do his best never to return to the United States and face a trial and stiff sentence.”
Coombs said that he was in tears after the sentencing and that Manning comforted him by saying: “Don’t worry about it. It’s all right. I know you did your best. … I’m going to be OK. I’m going to get through this.”
Coombs said Manning will seek a presidential pardon or a commuted sentence.
“The time to end Brad’s suffering is now,” the defense attorney said. “The time for our president to focus on protecting whistleblowers instead of punishing them is now.”
Coombs read from a letter Manning will send to the president in which he said: “I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. … When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”
He made a similar apology during the sentencing phase of the case.
Manning’s lawyers also contended that he suffered extreme inner turmoil over his gender identity – his feeling that he was a woman trapped in a man’s body – while serving in the macho military during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Among the evidence was a photo of him in a blond wig and lipstick.
Prosecutors showed that al-Qaida used material from the helicopter attack in a propaganda video and that Osama bin Laden presumably read some of the leaked documents. Some of the material was found in bin Laden’s hideout after he was killed.
Also, government witnesses testified that the leaks endangered U.S. intelligence sources, some of whom were moved to other countries for their safety. And several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.
Manning’s supporters likened him to Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam was released to The New York Times and other newspapers in a case that touched off an epic clash between the Nixon administration and the press and led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment.
Ellsberg was also charged under the Espionage Act, but the case was thrown out because of government misconduct, including a White House-sanctioned break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
On Wednesday, Ellsberg, one of Manning’s strongest supporters, called the soldier “one more casualty of a horrible, wrongful war that he tried to shorten.”