Private Bradley Manning sent more than 700,000 classified government files to Wikileaks, which gave the documents a global audience, revealing much about American military and diplomatic activities. He violated the law, and the expectation was that he would face a tough sentence, reflecting the magnitude of the leak.
That sentence arrived on Wednesday, 35 years in a military prison. Calculating for time already served, plus the mistreatment he received, Manning may be eligible for parole in seven years. The judge, Army Col. Denise Laird, did not follow the recommendation of 60 years proposed by the prosecution, much as she did not find Manning guilty of the most severe charge, aiding the enemy.
So, there is a measured element in the sentence. At the same time, the punishment rates as harsh, especially when weighed against the sentences others have received for leaking such information. In the 1980s, a Navy intelligence officer received two years for releasing classified satellite surveillance photographs. More recently, the sentences have involved similar, even less, time.
Again, Manning gave up a far greater amount of classified information. He exposed foreign nationals who had helped American diplomats and military personnel, potentially putting them in jeopardy. Still, there was a clear element of serving the public interest, no less than letting Americans know about the actions of their government.
Consider the video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007, resulting in the deaths of civilians, including two journalists. Or the information about those held without charges at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Or the reports involving the abusive actions of Iraqi officers against detainees, all of it overseen by American forces. The leaked material made plain that the civilian death toll in Iraq was higher than official claims.
So, yes, punish Bradley Manning for his illegal actions. Also know that leaks play a crucial role in helping people hold their government accountable. Meanwhile, as Manning faces a lengthy stay in prison, those who authorized and invited torture — in violation of the law — face no prospect of being held to account.