On Aug. 21, US Army Private First Class Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison on 20 of the 22 charges he faced. The maximum sentence for the charges was 90 years imprisonment. Manning will also be reduced in rank to Private, forfeit pay and allowances, and receive a dishonorable discharge from the military. Manning will be eligible for his first parole review after serving 10 years of his sentence, and will get credit for 1,182 days of time served while awaiting trial.
In response to the sentence, Ben Wizner of the ACLU released the following statement: “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. A legal system that doesn’t distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability. This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it’s also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate.”
Let us delve deeper into the background of the case to see precisely what the outcome of the Manning trial reveals. The charge that did not hold up against Manning was that of aiding the enemy. Aiding the enemy is defined in 10 USC § 904 as follows: “Any person who— (1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or (2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly; shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.” This case was the first attempt to use that charge against someone who gave information to the media for the public good. The prosecution's legal theory was essentially that releasing classified information to the internet aids the enemy because the enemy can access the internet. The corollary of this theory is that because the American people can also access the internet, they are also the enemy.
The information released by Manning included video showing a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of people that included journalists from Reuters, incident reports from Afghanistan and Iraq that showed there were much larger numbers of civilian casualties than the U.S. government had previously reported, documents concerning detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables. The leaked documents revealed actions that constitute war crimes, but as war crimes commonly go unpunished or result in prison sentences less than 35 years, the prosecution was helping the government send a message that revealing the commission of war crimes to the American people is more serious than actually committing war crimes in the name of the American people.
Finally, the very nature of the Manning trial reveals something about any system of government which is incompatible with a free society. As a government has a monopoly on the enactment and enforcement of the law within its geographical area of influence, any perceived crimes against the state will be tried in a court with a judge and a prosecutorial team that are on the payroll of the state. This creates a conflict of interest which would never be tolerated in the free market, as some fault can always be found by higher-ranking government officials to remove judges and prosecutors who consistently do not get the results sought by those in power.