Manning gets 35 years for passing US files to WikiLeaks

Questions remain as to how former army private had access to military intelligence

Bradley Manning is escorted by military police as he arrives for sentencing at Fort Meade, Maryland, yesterday. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bradley Manning is escorted by military police as he arrives for sentencing at Fort Meade, Maryland, yesterday. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Rallies in support of Bradley Manning – including a march to the White House – were organised in several American cities last night in reaction to the 35-year military prison sentence served to the former army private for passing on some 700,000 government and military files into the public domain through WikiLeaks.

While the sentence is the most severe ever handed down by a US court for leaking government information, it does allow for a parole review after eight years. Manning (25) was acquitted of the most serious charge, that of “aiding the enemy”, which might have resulted in a life sentence.

He had pleaded guilty to the lesser charges, which exposed him to a prison term of up to 20 years. Prosecutors had been pushing for a 60-year term. The 1,294 days he has already spent in custody will be deducted from his term. That total includes a 112-day period struck from his sentence because of excessively harsh treatment to which he was subjected during his confinement at Quantico marine base in Virginia.

Dishonorably discharged

It took the judge, Colonel Denise Linde, just two minutes to read out the sentence, which concluded the court martial at Fort Meade, Maryland. Manning remained impassive during the sentencing as he was also informed that he was to be dishonorably discharged from the army, forfeiting pay and allowances. He was escorted quickly from the court room by military guards as shouts of encouragement came from the public gallery.

Reaction to yesterday’s sentencing illuminated the fault line between the conflicting principles of duty to protect US military intelligence and the dissemination of information and material in the public interest. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was among the first to criticise the severity of the sentence.

“While we’re relieved that Mr Manning was acquitted of the most dangerous charge, the ACLU has long held the view that leaks to the press in the public interest should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

“Since he already pleaded guilty to charges of leaking information – which carry significant punishment – it seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”

Defence attorneys for Manning were expected to lodge an appeal. While yesterday’s sentencing brings to a close the latest chapter in the culture of whistle-blowing which has dogged the Obama administration, it hardly begins to address the question as to how Manning went from working in Starbucks to having unfettered access to US military intelligence in the space of three years. It also raises questions as to how Manning ended up serving in Iraq, where he worked as a security intelligence agent, despite being recommended for discharge during his training period at Fort Leavenworth.

The background story to Manning’s drift towards the US army depicted an exceptionally difficult and rootless childhood. His aunt, Deborah van Alstryne, told the court that Manning’s mother had been drinking heavily while pregnant with him and that her alcoholism defined his childhood.

His sister Casey Major often took on the role of de facto parent. Manning moved with his mother to Haverford West in her native Wales after his parents divorced in 2001. He returned to the US in 2005.

Gender identity disorder

At 18, he was openly gay but struggling with gender identity disorder and was uncertain how to further his ambition of studying in college. In September 2007, he told his aunt he had enlisted to join the army.

Standing at just 5ft 2in, Manning was not a typical army recruit but he enlisted when recruitment levels had flagged. That, along with his aptitude for IT, prompted his passage through training and his stationing in Iraq despite strong signals he was not temperamentally suited to a military career.

Evidence heard during his trial recounted how he had struck a female officer in May 2010, just weeks after he had sent a troubled email to a superior officer detailing his struggles with gender identity.

By then, Manning had already downloaded hundreds of thousands of files and passed them onto WikiLeaks, including details of civilian deaths during the Iraq war, the abuse of detainees by Iraqi officers and the so-called “collateral murder” video of a US army helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007.

The source of the leaks only came to light after Manning decided to share his activities with computer hacker Adrian Lamo during an online conversation.

Lamo reported the conversation to US federal authorities, setting in motion the arrest which culminated in Manning’s sentencing at Fort Meade, where he had first reported for duty in October 2007.