FORT MEADE, Maryland – A military court sentenced U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning to 35 years in jail Wednesday for passing WikiLeaks the biggest leak of official secrets in United States history.
Manning could be freed on parole within a decade and his lawyer David Coombs said he would ask President Barack Obama to pardon him “or at the very least commute his sentence.”
An emotional Coombs read a message Manning addressed to Obama: “If you deny my request for a pardon I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.”
The White House sidestepped the appeal.
“If there is an application that’s filed by Mr. Manning or his attorneys, that application will be considered … like any other application,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Manning supporters protesting outside Fort Meade, the U.S. Army base that hosted his trial, were dismayed at the sentence, despite it being much lower than the 60 years demanded by prosecutors.
But Manning’s most high-profile champion, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, declared Wednesday’s ruling a “significant tactical victory” for his anti-secrecy cause.
He said Obama’s administration had intended to intimidate other “people of conscience,” like fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, and that this had “spectacularly backfired.”
“As a result, there will be a thousand more Bradley Mannings,” Assange said in London, where he is holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy to avoid questioning in a Swedish sex crime inquiry.
WikiLeaks recently also lent its support to Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who passed secret documents to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia as he flees a U.S. bid to prosecute him.
Manning appeared ashen-faced moments before he heard his fate in a courtroom at Fort Meade, which is located in Maryland, close to the U.S. capital.
Military judge Col. Denise Lind delivered her verdict in a less than two-minute statement in which she said the soldier would be demoted to the Army’s lowest rank.
He is to serve his sentence in military custody before being dishonorably discharged.
Under military law, Manning is eligible for parole on completion of one-third of his sentence. His jail time will be shortened by a total of 1,293 days for time already served.
Manning’s sentence will automatically be reviewed in the Army Court of Criminal Appeal.
The baby-faced private was convicted of espionage and other crimes last month, having earlier admitted being the source of hundreds of thousands of battlefield reports from the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and confidential diplomatic cables.
Publication of the documents caused deep embarrassment to the United States and rankled allies, prompting warnings from U.S. officials that troops and intelligence sources had been jeopardized.
Army lawyers had pressed for a much longer sentence, arguing that significantly more jail time would send a message to people contemplating the theft of classified information.
Coombs, however, had appealed for leniency. He said Manning had expressed remorse, cooperated with the court and deserved a chance to have a family and one day walk free.
Manning was a junior intelligence analyst at a U.S. base near Baghdad when he handed over the data – about 700,000 documents – to WikiLeaks.
He was arrested in Iraq in 2010 and has since been held in military custody.
The most notorious material that he brought to light was graphic cockpit footage of two U.S. Apache attack helicopters opening fire and killing 12 people in Baghdad in 2007.
Manning, a hero to supporters who regard him as a whistleblower who lifted the lid on U.S. foreign policy, said he had been offended by the callous remarks of the pilot.
Though found guilty of 20 of the 22 offenses leveled against him, Manning was cleared of the most serious charge, that of “aiding the enemy” – in this case, Al-Qaeda.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday’s sentence was sad for Manning but also sad “for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate.”
“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,” they added in a statement.
Expert witnesses testified during the sentencing phase of Manning’s trial that the soldier was confused about his gender and sexuality and under enormous psychological stress at the time he committed the leaks.