Army Pfc. Bradley Manning will be sentenced for his crimes in the next couple of days. The prosecutors are asking for 60 years while the defense is asking for 25 years. That the defense team is asking for 25 years is an indication of the strength of the government’s case and the magnitude of Manning’s offenses. Manning was convicted of 20 criminal counts resulting from giving WikiLeaks classified military and diplomatic documents. There was never any question of his guilt; the only question was his motive, and whether his actions rose to the level of treason. Shortly after Manning’s arrest, the prosecution said that the death penalty was off the table, which could be read as a sign that they doubted his motives were to hurt the US, or that the evidence would make it hard to prove that level of motivation. But as we wait for his sentence to be passed down, I find myself wondering what I would do if I were the judge.
What sentence would I give Manning? Is he a whistle blower or a traitor? A martyr for the truth, or a criminal acting out of spite? Was he even sane at the time he gave the documents to wikileaks? Did somebody take advantage of his depression and anxiety?
Realize that none of these issues has anything to do with his culpability. He stole the documents and he released them to unauthorized people. He has been found guilty as charged. However, I believe these issues do come into play for his sentencing. His intent is every bit as important as his actions.
I joined the Navy in July of 1984. I was designated as a Nuclear Reactor Operator, which meant that I had to get a security clearance before going through the latter portions of my training. My first year was spent in boot camp, Basic Electricity and Electronics School, and Electronics Technician ‘A’ School. During that time, I was investigated and given a security clearance and in May of 1985, I reported to Nuclear Propulsion School. About that same time, a man named John Anthony Walker was arrested along with much of his family for spying for the Soviet Union. Walker was former Navy, as were several of his family members, including Michael Walker, who we will meet in a moment. Over almost 20 years, John Walker had passed on a tremendous amount of material to the Soviets, severely damaging US power and giving the Soviets a tremendous edge in strategic planning during that time frame. As Soviet Spy master Boris Solomatin said:
“…Walker’s information not only provided us with ongoing intelligence, but helped us over time to understand and study how your military actually thinks.”
While I was going through my training, the Navy was dealing with the devastating news that one of the biggest spy rings in history had been operating right under their noses for decades and they’d never noticed. One of their first steps was to re-evaluate the clearance level of all sailors and to downgrade them wherever possible. My clearance was downgraded basically before I knew I had one.
By the time my training was complete, it was late summer of 1986, and I went to my first ship, the USS Nimitz. Michael Walker had been a yeoman on the USS Nimitz, and had been arrested aboard the ship. When I reported aboard, a year later, it was still a sore subject. Since we dealt with classified information, we had frequent security lectures and stringent controls on both operating and study materials. Walker had given the Nimitz a black eye, and as part of the crew, we weren’t happy about it.
So when it comes to Manning, I have some history.
But when I look at Manning, I don’t see John Walker; I see Michael. I don’t see a criminal mastermind, enfolding others in his plot to make money, wield power, and magnify himself. I see a confused young man with a troubled mind and a troubled conscience. Ostracized and isolated, he didn’t feel he could take his doubts to the chain of command, and that left him little choice but to go outside of it. Some of the information he released, like the Granai airstrike, revealed clear wrong doing on the part of the US. It is based on those revelations that his supports feel he is not a criminal, but a whistleblower, and should be treated as such. But much of the rest, like the diplomatic cables, did not show illegal actions by the US, and were merely embarrassing, and conceivably detrimental to diplomatic relations with several of our allies. If there’s no crime, there’s no whistle to blow.
But there is no information that he intended to give secrets to an enemy force that would compromise our ability to defend ourselves from attack. Additionally, he surrounded himself with people who may have manipulated him for their benefit. Much like Michael Walker’s father manipulated him, Manning may have been egged on by folks from wikileaks and the hacker community. They may have played on his desperate need to belong.
I don’t know. But the character of the young man on trial shows an essential weakness that would certainly make him vulnerable to such an approach.
The Walkers, with the exception of Michael, were all given life sentences, with one receiving a sentence of 365 years. John Walker will be eligible for parole in 2015, after serving 30 years. Michael was sentenced to 25 years, and served 15 before being released on parole in 2000.
So what does that mean for Manning?
In my opinion, while his crimes are on a par with Micheal Walker’s, I think Michael got off too lightly. 15 years is not enough for espionage. You see, it’s not just about punishment for the offender; it’s about deterrence for the next guy. Walker sold secrets; he should have served the entire 25 year sentence. Manning didn’t sell secrets; in his mind, he was trying to serve the public good. But at the same time, he released far more information than just about illegal acts by the US. There seems to be an element of payback, as if this was his way for getting back at the military for refusing to accept him. And that is not a mitigating factor.
36 years; eligible for parole in 24.