UPDATED at 10: 30 a.m. - Pfc. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison Wednesday for the largest leak in U.S. history, a sentence that could set the tone of future prosecutions of those who leak classified information.
Army Col. Denise Lind, the military judge in the case, handed down her sentence at 10 a.m. ET.
Manning was convicted on July 30 of 20 criminal counts, including espionage and disobeying orders, for providing 700,000 classified documents to online transparency group WikiLeaks in 2010.
Manning was also given a reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge, although he will be eligible for parole and will get credit for the three and a half years he has already spent in jail. He is likely to spend only another ten years in prison.
The 25-year-old had faced a possible maximum sentence of 90 years in prison. The prosecution had sought a sentence of 60 years.
During a sentencing hearing last week, Manning apologized for any harm he might have caused United States interests and said, “When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”
Transparency advocates believe that Manning’s case will have a chilling effect on future leaks and have said that the Obama administration has been too harsh on people who provide secret information to the media. Obama’s Department of Justice has charged more people under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all previous administrations combined.
“The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistleblowers and journalists willing to publish their information,” said a statement from The Center for Constitutional Rights in response to the sentence. “It is a travesty of justice that Manning, who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators of the crimes he exposed are not even being investigated.”
Manning spent three years in jail prior to the June start of his trial, nine months of which he spent in solitary confinement. After deciding that time amounted to excessive punishment, Lind ruled in January that Manning’s sentence would be reduced by 112 days.
Lind’s sentence may guarantee almost another decade in prison, but Manning’s defense team is not out of options. “As things stand now for Manning, it’s the worst it can get,” retired Colonel Morris Davis, a former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay who testified at Manning’s trial, told MSNBC. The first opportunity to get a reduction in sentence will come when the court martial findings and sentence are sent to the convening authority for approval. Manning’s lawyers could appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “For him, there is nothing to risk by taking advantage of every opportunity on appeal.”
While Lind’s decision to acquit Manning of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge he faced, there is still widespread concern that those who seek to expose wrongdoing enjoy insufficient protections from retaliation and prosecution. The Whistleblower Protection Act, which President Obama signed in November 2012, does not cover contractors like Edward Snowden, who this summer leaked classified information on America’s surveillance programs. The exception could leave thousands of men and women vulnerable to prosecution for shedding light on abuses.
“This sentence is precedent-setting for all the wrong reasons,” Elizabeth Goiten, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice said. “Public servants who come across improperly classified evidence of government misconduct and want to blow the whistle will now think twice.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly misstated the date of Manning’s conviction.