Debate: Did Bradley Manning get appropriate sentence?

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A judge on Tuesday ordered Bradley Manning, the Army private convicted of releasing a trove of secret American documents to WikiLeaks, to serve a sentence of 35 years behind bars.

Manning's critics said that the long sentence was justified and that his acts may have gotten American allies killed. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union noted that Manning was being punished even though "others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians" have gone unpunished and unprosecuted. The debate played out in the shadow of Edward Snowden's recent leaking of secret documents showing the depth and breadth of National Security Agency spying. (Apart from this news, it was disclosed that Manning wishes to live as a woman named Chelsea.)

Is Manning's sentence appropriate? Columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate the matter.


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MATHIS: Manning is paying the piper. You don't get to push the U.S. government's secrets out into broad daylight and walk away unpunished. You just don't.

Still, I'm awfully glad he did what he did.

Because of Manning, Americans discovered that American officials suppressed hundreds of reports of "abuse, torture, rape and murder" by Iraqi police and soldiers during the Iraq War. Because of Manning, Americans saw video of an Army helicopter gunning down a group of Iraqi civilians in 2007 -- including two Reuters journalists.

Because of Manning, Americans found out about a 2006 atrocity in which American soldiers executed a least 10 Iraqi civilians -- including a baby and an elderly woman -- then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. Because of Manning, we learned that the American government itself estimated more than 60,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed during our war there.

Because of Manning, Americans definitively learned that America had gone to war inside Pakistan, despite official denials.

There's so much more -- the details have largely been forgotten by the public in the years it took to bring Manning to trial. Mostly, though, one can appreciate Manning because he laid the groundwork for Snowden's unveiling of secret documents that show the NSA gathers far more information about Americans and their online habits than had been previously understood. Thanks to that, we're finally having a long-needed debate about government secrecy and the rights of Americans to digital privacy.

We're a better-functioning democracy, in other words, because Manning and Snowden decided to share with Americans information that, in most cases, could've and should've been shared by the American government itself.

"A legal system that doesn't distinguish between leaks to the press in the public interest and treason against the nation will not only produce unjust results, but will deprive the public of critical information that is necessary for democratic accountability," the ACLU said, condemning the sentence.

Manning made "democratic accountability" possible. His reward? Thirty-five years in prison.

BOYCHUK: Manning got off easy. He could have received 90 years for stealing more than 700,000 classified documents and releasing them to WikiLeaks. He certainly deserved the longer sentence, given the damage he did.

Manning also got lucky. The judge cleared him of "aiding the enemy" -- a capital offense. Evidently, neither his Army prosecutors nor the judge could properly identify the enemy Manning aided.

The enemy wasn't al-Qaida, although certainly that terrorist group benefited from the trove of secrets Manning stole. No, the enemy in this case is WikiLeaks, which in turn made it possible for al-Qaida and other U.S. enemies to exploit Manning's breach.

WikiLeaks' defenders would be horrified that a mere website could be considered an enemy of the most powerful country on earth. Wouldn't it be akin to labeling the Guardian of London, the newspaper that published Snowden's revelations about the NSA, a U.S. enemy as well? No, and here's why: WikiLeaks' founder, an Australian named Julian Assange, doesn't pretend to be a journalist. He's not much interested in "democratic accountability." Rather, his stated goal is "total annihilation of the current U.S. regime." Why not take him at his word? It's difficult to square Assange's goals with Manning's pitiful justifications. "When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people," Manning told the court at his sentencing. Yet his revelations almost certainly got Americans killed, and probably made the federal government less transparent as a result.

These are perilous times. Lines have been drawn and sides must be taken. It's true that the United States government lies, cheats and kills -- often ineptly so. What does it say about our government's competence that it entrusted the likes of Manning and Snowden with the nation's most cherished secrets in the first place? But if the alternative to "the current U.S. regime" is a world as envisioned by Assange, Snowden and Manning, then the choice should be obvious. And Manning should never be allowed to walk free again.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to The Philly Post. Reach them at bboychuk@city-journal.org, joelmmathis@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

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