The fairness of the sentence for former soldier Bradley Manning, who leaked large quantities of secret documents, is hardly in question. Manning’s actions that violated the Espionage Act were not seriously questioned by the defense, although a judge acquitted Manning of a more serious charge of aiding the enemy.
That could have earned life in jail. As it is, a sentence of 35 years is a long time for a 25-year-old who digitally copied and released more than 700,000 documents while working in 2010 in Iraq. In a generation of young people who copy and send with abandon, there are those who might see Manning as a rebel unjustly persecuted for innocent offenses.
What Manning called “good intentions” in his apology to the court-martial doesn’t count.
No one that we know of died as a direct result of Manning’s disclosures. Prosecutors demonstrated that the famous “Wikileaks” disclosures did aid the enemy, to the extent that some of the documents were found in Pakistan when Osama bin Laden was killed, and intelligence sources were disclosed.
We agree that some of the disclosures did no harm. After all, the people of France probably did not need to read American diplomats’ cables to know that then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was an egomaniac. That they turned him out of office later wasn’t hastened along by Wikileaks.
Yet much of what Manning released was not the relatively harmless chatter of international politics. Government witnesses testified 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.
Those are not small matters, and certainly not ones that should be decided by a twenty-something who did not take very seriously an oath of enlistment. As unfashionable as it may sound, obedience is an obligation of soldiers.
If this reckless and irresponsible behavior had been condoned by the U.S. Army, one of the fundamentals of how the military operates would be undermined.
One cannot help but feel some sympathy for a young person who makes this kind of terrible mistake. Still, let us not call this sentence an injustice. It was more than justified by the offense.