Wikileaks source Private Bradley Manning was slapped with a 35-year prison sentence today — the largest sentence ever of its kind. “It’s further indication that the Executive Branch is very serious about discouraging classified documents,” Yale Law School professor Eugene Fidell tells me. “It struck me that it was a little on the high side, but within the range of reasonableness.”
Manning is responsible for arguably the largest data leak in U.S. history: 250,000 sensitive diplomatic cables to the rogue journalism outfit, Wikileaks. The cables preceded mass upheaval in the Middle East and are widely considered a factor in the 2009 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. As a result, his punishment has no comparable precedent.
In 1985, for instance, Naval Intelligence Officer Samuel Morison was sentenced to two years for leaking satellite surveillance photographs (President Clinton eventually pardoned him).
While Obama is a pioneer in non-classified open government, he has been aggressively anti-leak. In a cordial, but testy exchange with Bradley Manning supporter Logan Price at an expensive fundraising breakfast in San Francisco in April, Obama had this to say:
Obama: Look, there are better ways and more appropriate ways to bring this up than interrupting and causing a scene…
Price: I understand. That’s why I am asking you now. I wasn’t singing or chanting and I want to know. I think he is the most important whistleblower of my generation. Why is he being prosecuted?
Obama: Well, what he did was irresponsible and risked the lives of service members abroad. He did a lot of damage. So people can have philosophical views on…
Price: But I haven’t seen any evidence of that, and how can you say that the leaks did more harm than good? What about their effect on the democratic revolutions in the Arab world? And isn’t this going to help the war on terror?
Obama: No, no, no, but look, I can’t conduct diplomacy on an open source [basis]. That’s not how the world works. And if you’re in the military… I have to abide by certain rules of classified information. If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law. We’re a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate.
The Secret Service was beginning to tug on Price’s arm, but Obama waved them off. “No he’s being fine,” he told his detail, “He is being courteous and asking questions.”
Price: But didn’t he have a responsibility to expose…
Obama: He broke the law!
Price: Well, you can make the law harder to break, but what he did was tell us the truth.
Obama: What he did was he dumped…
Price: But Nixon tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for the same thing and he is a [hero].
Obama: No it isn’t the same thing.What Ellsberg released wasn’t classified in the same way.
Despite Manning’s tough sentence and the unlikely event of a presidential pardon, Wikileaks calls the sentence a “strategic victory.”
Significant strategic victory in Bradley Manning case. Bradley Manning now elegible for release in less than 9 years, 4.4 in one calculation—
WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 21, 2013
And in a follow-up statement, part-time James Bond villain lookalike Julian Assange said: “This hard-won minimum term represents a significant tactical victory for Bradley Manning’s defense, campaign team and supporters.”
Fidell, however, doesn’t hold the same optimism. “I don’t know who it’s a victory for,” he says. “Private Manning is going to jail for a long time.”