US soldier Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison by a military judge after being convicted of the country’s biggest breach of classified data.
In a long-awaited judgement on the case, which has deeply divided opinions around the world since the leak of US diplomatic cables in 2010, the 25-year-old private first class was sentenced at Fort Meade, in Maryland, after being found guilty last month of 20 offences, including six violations of the Espionage Act.
Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of at least 60 years, arguing it would deter other soldiers from following in Manning’s footsteps. His defence had suggested a prison term of no more than 25 years, to give him a chance to rebuild his life.
He was also dishonourably discharged from the military, and will forfeit some pay, said Colonel Denise Lind, the judge hearing the court martial. His sentence will be reduced by the amount of time he has already served – three years – and 112 days.
Manning, who showed no emotion as the sentence was being read out, had already admitted leaking military information in February. He had leaked 260,000 US diplomatic cables, battle videos and military logs to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. On 30 July, he was cleared of aiding the enemy, but was found guilty of five charges of theft and five charges of espionage.
His case will go for an automatic appeal in the next six months.
WikiLeaks described the sentence as a “strategic victory” because it meant Manning was eligible for parole in less than nine years:
“Significant strategic victory in Bradley Manning case,” WikiLeaks said on its Twitter feed. “Bradley Manning now eligible for release in less than 9 years, 4.4 in one calculation.”
In his teenage years, Manning went from being a slightly “oddball” computer whizz schoolkid to becoming the man behind the biggest leak of classified information in the US’s history.
Born in 1987 in Oklahoma to an American father who had reportedly served as an intelligence analyst, and a Welsh mother, he returned to school in Haverfordwest, in Wales, in 2001, but he never really fitted in, according to his former friend, James Kirkpatrick.
His older sister Casey Major told the court that she was his primary caretaker and playmate, as both of their parents were alcoholics.
Susan, their mother, tried to commit suicide when he was 12, by taking a bottle of Valium after drinking heavily. Bradley had to check she was still breathing as Ms Major drove her mother to the hospital.
At school, friends described Manning as as bright, thoughtful, politically engaged, and opinionated.
There, he built an early social media website called Angeldyne, which featured “stories on there written by a young Bradley Manning that were not written by your average teenager – a story about Dr David Kelly, for example,” said Tim Price, who wrote a play about him.
An issue which remained in the background, however, was his homosexuality.
Navy Captain David Moulton, a forensic psychologist, told the court that Mannning had suffered a long-standing struggle with gender identity and abnormal personality traits.
Manning joined the army in October 2007, at the age of 19, having drifted through a series of low-paid jobs.
Described as suffering from gender dysphoria, previously classified as gender identity disorder, he emailed a photograph of himself in a long blonde wig and lipstick to Captain Michael Worsely, a military clinical psychologist, saying that he hoped a military career would “get rid” of his “problem”.
Another captain, Navy Captain David Moulton, said that Manning had traits of “narcissistic personality”, “borderline personality” and “abnormal personality”. He told the court that he had symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome and Asperger’s.
Manning was sent to Iraq in October 2009, where, as a low-level army intelligence analyst, he had access to top secret information, including US State Department diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs.
A month after he was sent to Iraq, he made contact with WikiLeaks after it had leaked 57,000 pager messages from 9/11.
In logs of internet chats with Adrian Lamo, a former hacker, exchanged between the pair in May 2010, Manning asked: “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8+ months, what would you do?”
Shortly afterwards, he told Lamo about his contact with WikiLeaks, saying he had provided them with 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables. He also told Lamo that he had forwarded WikiLeaks the video of Iraqi civilians and journalists being killed by a US helicopter gunship in July 2007.
Lamo tipped off the FBI and the Army about Manning’s claims. Manning was seized by Army authorities and put into pre-trial detention in Kuwait in May 2010.
In July of that year, reports on the Afghan war based on the US military logs were published by the Guardian and the New York Times, and the US embassy cables were published by the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, and Le Monde in Paris, as well as El País in Spain in December 2010.
Manning told the court that when he made the decision to release the government data, “I believed I was going to help people not hurt people”.
In an address to the judge, he apologised, but said that he understood what he was doing. “I’m sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions,” he said. He added: “I understand I must pay the price.”
However he also told of his disillusionment with US foreign policy and its wars, saying he became “depressed with the situation”, and that he wanted the public to have access to the information he had seen.
His defence team said that Manning was a naive but well-intentioned young man who wanted to begin a debate about the conduct of the US abroad, diplomatically and militarily.
Military clinical psychologists said that Manning was in solitary anguish and struggled over his sexual identity in a “hostile” military environment.
“At the time, the military was not exactly friendly towards the gay community,” Captain Worsely said.
Ten diplomatic cables on Tunisia had been released by WikiLeaks, documenting widespread corruption and lavish living in then President Zine al-Abadine Ben Ali’s government. These were available in the country.
In Tunisia, amid censorship and fear of speaking out against the president, the WikiLeaks cables were said to have fuelled resentment.
While one of the cables was published 10 days before the self-immolation, others have argued that it is unlikely the fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, would have read it, or even known about WikiLeaks.
Abeer Allam, a correspondent for the Financial Times in Saudi Arabia, said: “WikiLeaks didn’t teach Tunisians secrets about their country. Tunis activists like Zohair Yahyaoui knew and exposed it years ago.”
A Moroccan lawyer who writes as Ibn Kafka, a blogger, added: “It seems some Western people cannot fathom that a third world people can get by without their help.”
In 1991, Army Spec Albert T Sombolay received a 34-year sentence for giving a Jordanian intelligence agent information on the buildup for the first Iraq war. He was also sentenced for giving other documents and samples of US Army chemical protection equipment.
Marine Sgt Clayton Lonetree was given a 30-year sentence, later reduced to 15 years, after he became the only US Marine ever convicted of espionage. He had given the Soviet KGB the identities of US CIA agents and the floor plans of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna in the early 1980s.
Spies have also been ordered to serve life in prison. Aldrich Ames, a former CIA case officer, was given life after he was convicted in 1994 of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia, and Robert Hannssen, a former FBI agent, was convicted in 2001 of spying for Moscow.