By Dana Milbank
FORT MEADE, Md. — Pfc. Bradley Manning got a dishonorable discharge at his sentencing, but he received it with an honorable disposition.
When the judge read out the young soldier’s 35-year sentence Wednesday morning for giving classified information to WikiLeaks, family members wept and supporters cried out, “We are with you! You are a hero!”
But Manning, 25, whisked quickly from the room after the brief sentencing, was philosophical. “It’s OK. It’s all right,’” he told his attorney, Lt. Col. David Coombs, who was in tears over his client’s fate. “I’m going to be OK. I’m going to get through this.”
Manning was bound for prison at Fort Leavenworth, but Coombs, free to speak his mind at the end of the three-year legal saga, held a news conference at a nearby hotel in the afternoon and read a statement from Manning to President Obama requesting a pardon.
“I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States,” the statement said. “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others. If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty.”
Manning’s dignity is a good model for Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker now hiding from American justice in Russia. Manning admitted what he had done, and he used his trial and its conclusion to argue for the righteousness of his cause. That cause was artfully described by Coombs, who, with the shaved head of a military man and the business suit of a civilian lawyer, stood before 20 TV cameras and took as many questions as reporters could ask.
“Under the current administration, an unauthorized leak to the media of classified information is viewed as being tantamount to aiding the enemy,” a capital offense, Coombs said. “The government-wide crackdown on whistle-blowers and the extension of this crackdown to journalists threatens to stifle the flow of information that is vital to our public.” A country in which “you are faced with a death-penalty offense” for the simple act of disclosing information to a journalist, Coombs added, “is not the America that I would hope that we live in.”
Manning beat a charge of aiding the enemy, and his trial also brought attention to the government practice of labeling “secret” things the public should know. “The cancer of over-classification is threatening the very fabric of our free society,” Coombs warned. “Over-classification hinders debate. It hinders what we know about our government. It hinders finding solutions to common problems (such as) how do we keep our way of life in a post-9/11 world.”
There are, of course, varying opinions about Manning. I think he went too far, making some valid disclosures but losing his moral authority by dumping all kinds of government documents that embarrassed U.S. officials without serving any public good. He broke the law, and his sentence — he will be eligible for parole in seven years — could have been a lot worse.
But whatever you think about Manning, his trial and his pretrial treatment exposed how zealous the national security state has been, even under this Democratic president. The tiny offender, little more than a boy, was initially held under 23-hour lockdown in a small cell and denied clothing.
On hand for the news conference were academic Cornel West (in three-piece suit and scarf even on the warm summer day) and dozens of local activists wearing black T-shirts with the message, “President Obama, Pardon Bradley.”
That’s not likely; administration officials say Manning did real harm to American interests. But as he does his time at Leavenworth, Manning can know that he contributed to an important debate about the reach of the national security state.
The administration, Coombs pointed out, has suggested that reporters can be prosecuted for receiving classified information, and it has prosecuted more leaks than all previous administrations while roughing up whistle-blowers. On top of that, he said, the prosecution of the WikiLeaks leaker “does send a message and it’s a chilling one and it’s endorsed at the very highest levels of this administration.”
You don’t need to agree with what Manning did to agree with Coombs that government secrecy has gone too far.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.