The treatment of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been excessively harsh, as far as I can tell. If he is found guilty of leaking more than 700,000 classified documents, he deserves some punishment — probably — but should not be at risk of spending the rest of his life behind bars. Apparently.
I have to throw in all those qualifiers because Manning’s prosecution has been largely a secret process. Portions of his court-martial, which opened Monday at Fort Meade, Md., will be secret as well — the important parts, presumably. The public may never know whether justice is properly done unless someone leaks the details of this trial about leaks.
But we do know that Manning has offered to plead guilty to a host of charges that could bring up to 20 years in prison. Rather than agree to what strikes me as more than adequate punishment, prosecutors insist on trying to convict him under the 1917 Espionage Act as, essentially, an enemy of the state. Which I don’t believe he is.
I say this even though Manning is allegedly responsible for the biggest unauthorized release of classified documents in the nation’s history. The material was disseminated by the website WikiLeaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, has taken asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Assange fears that if he allows himself to be extradited to Sweden to face pending rape charges, U.S. authorities will eventually take him into custody — and give him the same treatment they’re giving Manning.
After his arrest in May 2010, Manning has been held in isolation for months at a time and given such rough handling that the judge presiding over his trial, Army Col. Denise Lind, has granted him 112 days’ credit toward his eventual sentence if convicted.
I have struggled to sort out my own feelings about the Manning case. The only remotely comparable situation that comes to mind is that of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg, too, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act; a federal judge dismissed the charges after learning of heavy-handed and illegal investigative tactics by the Nixon administration. Ellsberg is remembered as a whistleblower, not a criminal. For revealing what the government really thought about the Vietnam War — as opposed to the lies it was telling the American people — Ellsberg should be considered a hero.