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Bradley Manning Gets 35 Years in Prison After Largest Data Leak in U.S. History

August 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role in the largest data leak in U.S. history. Manning provided the website WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Gwen Ifill discusses Manning's fate with Charlie Savage, who has been covering the case for The New York Times.
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GWEN IFILL: Private Bradley Manning, the Army soldier responsible for the largest classified data leak in U.S. history, was sentenced today to 35 years in military prison.

Manning, who provided the website WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents, was flanked by his attorneys, as military judge Colonel Denise Lind announced the punishment without explanation during a brief hearing this morning. Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, spoke to reporters afterwards.

DAVID COOMBS, attorney for Bradley Manning: PFC Manning was one of the brave Americans who wasn’t willing to remain silent.

Instead, he decided to provide us with information that he believed would spark reforms, would spark debate, and he provided us with information that he believed might change the world. The time to end Brad’s suffering is now. The time for our president to focus on protecting whistle-blowers, instead of punishing them, is now.

I’m joined now by Charlie Savage, who has been covering the Manning trial for The New York Times.

Charlie, 35-year sentence, seven years perhaps before he gets a chance to be paroled. Is that considered a tough outcome?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: It is a tough outcome.

It is the longest by far sentence ever handed down in the United States in a case involving the leak of government secrets to the news media to be reported to the public.

GWEN IFILL: So we’re also talking about a reduction in rank, as well as a dishonorable discharge. Does that add to the sting as well?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I think being reduced to the lowest rank of private and a dishonorable discharge was expected and is sort of a minor thing.

The 35-year prison sentence is the important factor, a staggering amount of time compared to other sentences that have been handed down to convicted leakers.

GWEN IFILL: What comparable sentences can you draw the link to here?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, you have to remember that there have been very few convictions of people for leaking information for public consumption at all in this country.

The first time that happened was in 1985 or ’84, where a former Navy analyst was sentenced to two years. And it was so rare that President Clinton later pardoned him because it was sort of unfair that this one guy had been convicted for something that happens all the time.

Under this administration, of course, that we have seen, as has been well-documented, a flurry, a crackdown on leaking. There have been a few cases. One resulted in the sentence of one-year probation and community service. One resulted in 20 months in prison. One resulted in 30 months in prison.

And so 35 years is a categorical difference. Of course, the scale of Private Manning’s leaks was also unlike anything we have ever seen before.

GWEN IFILL: But they were asking for more. They were asking for 60 years, right, which would have made him less eligible for parole in such a short amount of time.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: The prosecutors were, indeed, asking for 60 years. Of course, they had originally sought to convict him on a charge that could result in a life sentence.

And Private Manning himself had unilaterally pled guilty to charges that would put him behind bars up to 20 years. So 35 years sort of splits the difference between that 20 and that 60. My understanding of the military justice system, which is a little bit different than the federal criminal justice system, is that any sentence over 30 years makes one eligible for parole after 10 years.

And so an even longer sentence might not have changed the outcome if someday he gets out on parole when he becomes eligible for it, which is a big if.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about Bradley Manning. He was in court today for this very brief — this very brief adjudication. What happened? Did he react? Was there any kind of outcry?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: I was there watching from a closed-circuit television feed and a colleague of mine was in the courtroom. She described him as sitting very quietly with his hands clasped, whispering to his lawyer sort of nervously before the hearing.

He stood — and we could watch him on the screen as well — alongside at attention, alongside his lawyer and the prosecution in this sort of two-minute hearing, as the judge just sort of rattled it off, gaveled it closed and walked out.

And, as soon as she was out of the courtroom, my colleague told me guards flanked him and sort of hustled him out of the front of the courtroom, as supporters who had been in the audience at the back of the courtroom started shouting messages of support to him.

GWEN IFILL: He’s become something of a cause celebre in some circles. And now his attorney is asking for a pardon. That was a long and interesting news conference he gave today afterward making that case.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, that’s certainly true that a movement has organized itself around Private Manning and sort of held him up as an iconic figure and his leaks as a heroic act to be emulated by others, they hope.

And I think they certainly see the recent leaks by the NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have brought so much to light about domestic surveillance activities by the NSA as in this sort of tradition of the mega-leaker Private Manning sort of innovated, as it were.

He is a figure of some renown to this open government movement. Of course, to his critics, he’s someone who is a traitor, who betrayed the trust the United States government had put into him, either way, a sort of singular figure, a world historical figure, I would say, in our time.

GWEN IFILL: His attorney, Mr. Coombs, said that the fight is not over. So what are the options, assuming that a pardon is not easily gettable?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, the next step is that the so-called convening authority, who is the general that runs the military district of Washington, will have to review the sentence. He has the ability to accept it as is or to reduce it, but not to add to it. So that’s the sort of first opportunity for clemency, if you will.

And then it will be automatically appealed to the first stage of review by the Army Criminal Court of Appeals. It could go from there up several levels all the way to the Supreme Court, if the defense team wants to keep fighting that fight.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, Charlie Savage, thanks so much.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.