Using law to crush political dissent

An editorial for the New York Times says: The 35-year sentence a military judge imposed on Pfc. Bradley Manning Wednesday morning was in some sense a vindication of his defense: following his conviction last month on charges of violating the Espionage Act, Private Manning faced up to 90 years in prison. He had previously pleaded guilty to lesser versions of those crimes that exposed him to 20 years behind bars. For a defense lawyer, a sentence of one-third the potential maximum is usually not a bad outcome. But from where we sit, it is still too much, given his stated desire not to betray his country but to encourage debate on American aims and shed light on the “day to day” realities of the American war effort.

Certainly, Private Manning faced punishment.

In providing more than 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks — extensive excerpts of which were published in The New York Times and other publications — he broke the law and breached his responsibility as a military intelligence analyst to protect those files. It was by far the biggest leak of classified documents in U.S. history, and thus it is not surprising that the punishment would be the longest ever on record for leaking such information.

But 35 years is far too long a sentence by any standard. In more than two weeks of hearings, government lawyers presented vague and largely speculative claims that Private Manning’s leaks had endangered lives and “chilled” diplomatic relations. On the other hand, much of what Private Manning released was of public value, including a video of a military helicopter shooting at two vans and killing civilians, including two Reuters journalists. By comparison, First Lt. Michael Behenna was sentenced to 25 years for the 2008 killing of an unarmed Iraqi man who was being questioned about suspected terrorist activities. Lieutenant Behenna’s sentence has since been cut to 15 years. Private Manning has already been held for more than three years, nine months of which were in solitary confinement. It is some comfort that he has several opportunities to avoid serving out his full term — including a sentence reduction by a military appeals court; the possibility of parole, for which he will be eligible in about eight years; or a grant of clemency by a board that considers requests from service members.

Army Col. Denise R. Lind, the judge who sentenced Private Manning, also reduced his rank to the lowest in the military and dishonorably discharged him. Those are appropriate punishments. But the larger issue, which is not resolved by Private Manning’s sentencing, is the federal government’s addiction to secrecy and what it will do when faced with future leaks, an inevitability when 92 million documents are classified in a year and more than 4 million Americans have security clearance.

In their drastic attempt to put Private Manning away for most of the rest of his life, prosecutors were also trying to discourage other potential leakers, but as the continuing release of classified documents by Edward Snowden shows, even the threat of significant prison time is not a deterrent when people believe their government keeps too many secrets.

In Egypt, when President Morsi made use of long-standing laws against blasphemy and insulting the government, critics quite reasonably saw this as evidence of an unwillingness to uphold the democratic principle of free speech.

The United States differs from Egypt in as much as it does not have these kinds of laws on the books. Nevertheless, what the Manning case highlights is the willingness of government officials to use the law as an instrument to crush political dissent.

As the New York Times points out, the Pentagon has shown greater leniency with murderers than it did with Manning — an indication that the reaction to the offense had much less to do with the nature of the crime than it had to do with the fact that Manning’s actions caused embarrassment to important people. That is to say, people who having acquired great power through government, who then come to regard government and the legal system as instruments for reinforcing that power.

This mentality has repeatedly been manifest in President Obama who having entered the political elite has always shown that his preeminent loyalty is to that elite. His refusal to “look back” at the crimes of his predecessors has little to do with a spirit of hope and everything to do with the unspoken code that “we look after our own.” Just as he wouldn’t prosecute anyone for torture, he likewise believes his loyal resolve will ensure that no future occupant of the Oval Office will decide to prosecute him for murder.

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