Manning’s ‘harsh’ sentence sends chilling message to whistleblowers, journalists


The 35-year sentence handed imposed on Private Bradley [Chelsea] Manning sends a “chilling message” to whistleblowers and investigative journalists covering national security issues, according free press advocates. 

In July, Manning was convicted of 20 charges – including espionage, theft, and computer fraud – for releasing about 700,000 classified U.S. government records to WikiLeaks.

The records leaked by the former Army intelligence analyst include the the Apache “collateral murder” video showing the killing of two Reuters employees and unarmed civilians who came to their aid; the “significant activities” (SIGACT) reports filed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables; and 700 Guantanamo detainee assessment briefs.

Read more: PFC Bradley Manning sentenced to 35 years for leaks

The Freedom of the Press Foundation noted that established news organizations, such as the New York Times and other regional newspapers, have used the materials released by Manning and published by WikiLeaks to investigate abuses by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“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,” according to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which was co-founded by Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. “His harsh and unnecessary prison sentence sends a dangerous message that leaking information to the public will be punished beyond all reasonable bounds.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out that military prosecutors purposely sought a harsh sentence against Manning to deter future whistleblowers, stressing that Manning’s case is just the latest example of the Obama administration’s “overzealous pursuit of leakers”.

Joel Simon, Executive Director of CPJ, said the aggressive prosecution and the tough sentence against Manning “sends an unequivocal chilling message to journalists and their sources, particularly on issues of national security.”

Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said he was shocked by the severity of Manning’s sentence.

“It’s amazing in just a few words you can essentially condemn a man to prison for a good part of his adult life,” said Ratner, whose organization represents WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange. “But even in their own terms it seems to me a shockingly heavy sentence. The other sentences for espionage that I’ve been familiar with – even for people who sold secrets, much less done good for their country by exposing them – have gotten shorter sentences.”

Ratner said the severe sentence sent a clear message from the government: “We don’t like whistleblowing in this country. We don’t like telling about thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq, the torture centers in Iraq, killings of Reuters journalists, and we’re going to try and close up every hole we can and keep our secrets secret.”   

Manning’s attorney David Coombs said the deterrent message was established early in the case when the government filed the aiding the enemy charge against his client.

If you are faced with a death penalty offense for something something that’s just giving information to you – a journalist – that’s scary,” Coombs said.  “Under the current administration, an unauthorized leak to the media of classified information is viewed as being tantamount as aiding the enemy.”

Coombs warned that the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers will “stifle the flow of information” that the public have a right and a need to know in order to hold the government accountable, particularly on national security issues.

“The case of United States v. Bradley Manning is a watershed moment in history for freedom of the the press. We need to decide what freedoms and individual rights we’re willing to give up in the name of national security,” said Coombs.  “The ultimate role of oversight in America has always belonged to the American people, and it is only to the extent that the American people can be informed to these matters that oversight works at all.”

But in order for the public to be properly informed, Coombs said journalists need whistleblowers like Manning who “are not afraid to stand up and speak the truth” about the government’s misdeeds carried out in the name of the American people. Coombs added that journalists should also be protected from criminal investigations for receiving leaked information “which is their very job to do as watchdogs of our government.”

“What’s at stake here is how do we – as a public – want to be informed about what our government does. The national security apparatus in this country has exploded since 9/11, and we don’t even understand how much money gets put into national security defense because that itself is secret,” explained Coombs. “What’s at stake here is how do we want to live as a country, and what do we want to say that we will do as a country in our self-defense and what we want to not do? And it’s important that last part – what do we not want to do – because that’s what makes us different from the enemy that we are facing. We don’t torture. We don’t hold people for years without due process. We don’t target for assassination innocent American people. We don’t do that as a country.”

Coombs said his client’s strong sense of morality drove him to leak to classified information that “he believed would spark reform” and “change the world” for the better when he came across records showing the U.S. committing human rights violations and other abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“[Manning] is the type of person who could not have lived with himself if he didn’t do something,” said Coombs. “He realized that there may be a time which he serves the rest of his life in prison for doing what he’s doing, and he was okay with that as long as people didn’t try to mischaracterize him as a traitor, as somebody who didn’t care about his country.”


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4 Comments on “Manning’s ‘harsh’ sentence sends chilling message to whistleblowers, journalists

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