Bradley Manning's goal in leaking documents detailing incidents in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was to draw attention to military misconduct. His 35-year sentence, which an expert The Atlantic Wire spoke with called "high-ish," far exceeds any punishments related to the misconduct he revealed.
The Atlantic Wire spoke by phone with Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. We were curious how likely it was that Manning would serve the entire 35-year sentence, which would mean he would be released from prison when in his late 50s. In short: It's not likely.
"Remember," Fidell said, "his sentence can be cut by the convening authority or by the court of appeals. It's not clear that it's going to remain at the 35-year starting point." Manning is eligible for parole after serving a third of his sentence. Fidell thought it likely that Manning would only serve "10 or 12 years" as a result. Clemency, however, is probably not an option.
Fidell expressed a bit of surprise at the verdict. "I thought it was high-ish, but not crazy-high by any means," he told us. "It's a nasty case, it's a serious case, and it's a high profile case. And we're living in a post-Snowden environment, where the government is very energized on these issues."
It's impossible not to compare that sentence to others who've faced punishment over conduct in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Among the files leaked by Manning were a series of files called the "Iraq War logs," documenting events that occurred during the American occupation of that country. As The Guardian wrote in 2010, the logs show an official policy of not addressing incidents of torture by Iraqi law enforcement. Wired covered the massive civilian death toll revealed by the documents. The New York Times reported on the role of contractors in those deaths.
It's not clear that Manning's revelations have resulted in any punishment. Convictions related to torturing detainees followed the leak of Abu Ghraib photos — which happened before Manning's leaks. None of those convicted received sentences of more than 10 years. A lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld was thrown out. Members of the CIA involved in torture-related deaths had charges against them dropped by the Obama administration. The whistleblower who pointed out the CIA's role got 30 months. Most of the contractors who've faced charges, meanwhile, faced them following charges of corruption.
Manning is not the only person who's faced charges over illegal behavior in Iraq. In the infamous "kill team" case, five soldiers were charged murder in the deaths of three Afghan civilians in 2010. Only one received a sentence of more than 10 years in prison — but after 10 years, he's eligible for parole. A sergeant convicted of murder in a 2004 incident got 25 years.
Perhaps the highest-profile leak from Manning was of a video recorded from a helicopter gunship, showing multiple civilians and two Reuters reporters being killed. (At right.) That case, closed by the military before the leak, has apparently not yet been reopened. No one has faced any charges. The ACLU said in a statement on Wednesday, "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."