Bradley Manning, the army intelligence analyst who brought hundreds of thousands of documents to the public through the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, was sentenced today to 35 years in prison. (You can read the full transcript of the judge's sentence here.) This harsh overreaction is intended to send a message to all potential whistleblowers who might expose wrongdoing by the American government: disclosing information to the American public for the betterment of society will be treated as harshly as espionage for profit.
With this sentence, Manning will be the longest imprisoned leaker in American history. If he serves even half of his sentence, he will have been imprisoned longer than all other prosecuted leakers combined.
Months ago, Bradley Manning submitted a “naked plea” to the military court – taking responsibility for the act of leaking information to WikiLeaks and pleading guilty to multiple charges that, at the maximum sentence, could have sent him to prison for more than 20 years. But the government prosecution chose to throw the book at Manning anyway, charging him with ‘aiding the enemy’ – which can carry life in prison or even the death sentence. While Manning was thankfully found not guilty of the most serious charge, he was convicted of multiple counts under the Espionage Act – the same law used to prosecute spies that covertly provide intelligence to a foreign power.
Journalistic organizations from the New York Time to NPR, from local blogs to regional newspapers, have benefited from Manning’s releases. These leaks have heralded a new era in investigative journalism, helped end America’s war in Iraq, fueled democratic revolutions during the Arab Spring and much more.
The story of Bradley Manning should be a source of inspiration for journalists, free speech advocates, and above all those in positions of power who might consider exposing uncomfortable truths. Instead, his harsh and unnecessary prison sentence sends a dangerous message that leaking information to the public will be punished beyond all reasonable bounds.
The public needs whistleblowers. Often at enormous personal sacrifice, whistleblowers serve as the ultimate check on otherwise unaccountable government secrecy. And Manning’s work in particular has shown that a single person can, when faced with knowledge of criminal acts, speak the truth and change the world.
Bradley Manning, who has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, deserves our gratitude—not decades in prison. As defenders of press freedom, we know that today’s ruling could have dire consequences for future whistleblowers working with investigative journalists. We condemn today’s sentencing of Bradley Manning as an attack on freedom of the press.