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When Compared to Other Military Cases, How Long is Bradley Manning Likely to Be Sentenced to Prison?

Bradley Manning

A sentencing verdict in the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning will be announced this week. Convicted of twenty offenses, including the embezzlement of government property and multiple violations of the Espionage Act, which stem from providing United States government information to WikiLeaks, Manning faces a maximum punishment of ninety years in military prison.

Judge Army Col. Denise Lind is likely to rule on the sentence some time Tuesday or Wednesday. The verdict will come after sentencing argument during the afternoon and evening of August 19.

In anticipation of a sentencing verdict, what should be expected and what would be proportional when compared to other military cases or espionage cases?

First off, Manning is not a spy nor was it ever alleged by any military prosecutor that Manning was operating as a spy. The closest military prosecutors ever came to suggesting Manning was operating as a spy was when they discussed how they believed he had been working on behalf of WikiLeaks as some kind of insider. But, like seven others who leaked information while the administration of President Barack Obama was in power, Manning was prosecuted as if he was a spy and was charged with violations of the Espionage Act (and convicted of those violations).

None of the charges involve the selling of secrets to any enemy groups, foreign nations or private organizations. They do, however, involve “wantonly causing to be published intelligence on the internet that would be accessible to the enemy.” The judge concluded, “At the time of the charged offense, al Qaeda and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were enemies of the United States. Pfc. Manning knew that al Qaeda was an enemy of the United States.” His conduct was “of a heedless nature that made it actually and imminently dangerous to others.”

Manning was also convicted of willfully communicating information to persons unauthorized to receive it. That information could have been used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation, according to the judge’s “special findings” for the verdict.

He was convicted of twenty offenses. In comparison to other military cases, where soldiers or officers were convicted of one or two counts related to sharing secrets, that is important to acknowledge when considering the possible length of his sentence. Soldiers accused of acts of espionage were not overcharged or did not face the multiplication of charges from their act like Manning did. The convicted act of espionage did carry a maximum punishment of at least twenty to thirty years, if not more, but there typically was no charge of stealing the information in addition to the espionage-related charges.

In March, a US Army specialist named William Colton Millay was sentenced to sixteen years in prison after he pled guilty to “attempted espionage, soliciting another to commit espionage, failing to obey regulations, issuing a false statement and communicating national defense information.” Millay was arrested by agents in 2011 after being the target of an FBI sting operation. While he had no access to classified information, he was willing to divulge secrets in retaliation for not being deployed to Afghanistan. (Millay had faced a maximum sentence of life without parole.)

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz was found guilty in 2007 of four charges stemming from printing secret information on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and sending it to the Center for Constitutional Rights in a Valentine’s Day card. He was sentenced to six months of confinement and dismissal from the Navy. For the duration of the confinement, a panel of Navy officers that heard the case decided to recommend Diaz’s pay not be forfeited so that money could go to family members dependent on him. (Diaz faced a maximum punishment of thirteen years and is widely considered to be a whistleblower these days because what he revealed is now publicly available information that should not have been secret.)

US Army Specialist Albert Sombolay, in 1991, was sentenced to thirty-four years in prison for agreeing to spy for Iraq during the Gulf War for $1,300. Sombolay served 12 years of a 34-year sentence for “selling military information to foreign agents.” He was “convicted of aiding the enemy” (a charge which Manning faced but was acquitted) and committing espionage.

As the Cold War was winding down, in 1989, Army Specialist 4 Michael Peri was sentenced to thirty years in prison for “passing sophisticated defense secrets to communist East Germany.” He served as an “electronic signal interceptor in the S-2 intelligence section of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda” and “crossed the border into East Germany with a small computer and discs containing classified information.” He pled guilty to espionage charges and could have been sentenced to life in prison.

In 1987, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree was sentenced to thirty years in prison after confessing to “supplying blueprints” of the US embassy, where he was stationed in Moscow, and names of US intelligence agents to a Soviet agent. He “fell in love with a Ukrainian woman who worked as a translator in the embassy,” who introduced him to an agent he came to know as “Uncle Sasha.” His sentence was cut in half and he was released early in February 1996. (Like Manning’s case did for information security in military, according to AP news report, “Lonetree’s case unleashed concern over security at American embassies worldwide and led to a secret presidential study that criticized the State Department and the Marines for neglecting security.”)

Private Arthur J. Ingebredsten, during World War II, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for “talking about details related to a combat plane.”

It is unknown if military prosecutors will recommend Manning be sentenced to the maximum number of years possible. But, the above examples show that, although Manning faces a potential sentence of ninety years, he should not receive any sentence near that amount.

His statement in court last week, where he apologized, and his testimony from family and psychologists should bring his sentence down to somewhere around twenty to thirty years.

If one adds up the offenses and predicts he could serve two to three years for each offense (and that might be expected based on his conviction), that would mean he was sentenced to forty years.

Manning already has served over one thousand days in prison. Whatever he is sentenced will be reduced by 1,274 days. There is a distinct possibility that he will be released early for good behavior and also the reality that his supporters around the world will continue to campaign for him to be freed.

For the next decade, he will be one of the most famous political prisoners in the world, whether the United States government and pundits in media are willing to accept that he is a political prisoner or not.

There is likely to be diplomatic pressure on the US that comes from governments invoking the case of Manning to justify their conduct or position on human rights issues. That will play a role in whether he has his sentence commuted by a future president or not.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."