The Manning Verdict and the Rule of Law

I was a bit shocked at the relatively lenient sentence that the military court handed down to Bradley Manning. He got 35 years, but could be eligible for parole in as little as ten years with good behavior and credit for time served. The government was asking for 60 years, so Manning is probably a bit relieved by it. But the prosecution and the verdict raise very troubling issues, as Glenn Greenwald put it in a tweet:

“Obama admin: we aggressively prosecute those who expose war crimes, and diligently protect those who commit them.”

That’s been the story from the start. Every whistleblower who has revealed the government’s illegal activities, including torture and illegal surveillance, has been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Everyone who engaged in those crimes has been protected by the Obama administration from any liability. They’ve steadfastly refused to file criminal charges against them, as required by federal law and the UN Convention Against Torture, and prevented every court challenge against them through the use of the State Secrets Privilege. Ben Wizner of the ACLU gets it exactly right:

“When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system. 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. This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it’s also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate.”

But the executive branch under both Bush and Obama has become, for all practical purposes, lawless. It has succeeded in subverting the Bill of Rights, the rule of law, the separation of powers, our treaty obligations and the rights of all of us. More importantly, it has succeeded in making itself immune to all legal challenge. We may exchange presidents every few years, but the branch they lead is now, for all practical purposes, an institution without boundaries on what it may do to us.

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  • Spot on.

    Except you misgendered Manning. She has said she prefers feminine pronouns and her preferred name is Chelsea.

  • colnago80

    Actually, it is my information that Manning could get out in as little as 7 years.

  • colnago80

    Re sotonohito @ #1

    Unfortunately for Manning, he’s probably not going to get the hormone treatments or the gender reassignment surgery while in the slammer.

  • embertine

    colnago80, hormones or no hormones, still a she please.

  • Félix Desrochers-Guérin

    That sentence looks lenient until you compare it to those of actual spies selling secrets to actual foreign states.

  • gshelley

    I imagine Ed either completely missed the news yesterday, or wrote the post before the announcement, and only got round to putting it up today. Either way, Manning has requested to be called Chelsea and for female pronouns

  • colnago80

    Re #6

    How about Jonathan Pollard who’s been in the slammer for selling information to a friendly government (yes I know, old Donaldo will dispute the description of friendly) who’s been in the slammer for 28 years an probably will leave feet first.

  • CaitieCat

    Thank you, embertine, for making that point; be aware you’ll get no change out of colnago80 about it, as he’s only here to be part of the World’s Most Dismal Clown Show with Don Williams.

    Ed, on the other hand, actually listens. Usually.

  • To be fair, his sentence (and treatment) would’ve been much better if he’d leaked information the government wanted leaked. He should’ve considered being “an anonymous source deep inside the Pentagon” leaking info to an acceptable media personality (not that creepy Wikileaks guy) on how great the war was going (“An insider states that ‘Iraq going so well, all they have left to shoot is civilians.’ (In unrelated news, Pentagon to request further emergency funding)”.

    It’s not that he shoudn’t have leaked the info (although he shouldn’t have). It’s that he spun it wrong. It’s not “Collateral Murder”, but “Collateral Freedom”. And wave a little American flag. Wave it!

  • colnago80

    Regardless of Manning’s wishes, it is very doubtful that the US prison system will place him in a women’s prison with a female cellmate.

    Re CaitieCat @ #8


  • abb3w

    Not only has the executive branch become immune to legal challenge, but the general two-party consensus to tolerance of such policies in practice renders it at least temporarily immune to political challenge. And, until and unless someone is willing (in abandonment of rule of law) to start assassinating alleged but unindicted torturers, it’s unlikely to face challenge in a continuation to “other means”.

    There might be some hope in analogy with the succession of the (failed) League of Nations by the (less failed) United Nations, that nuanced principle will eventually succeed brute jus potestas… in another fifty years or so.

  • lynxreign

    re colnago80 @10

    Good job, you’ve proved you’re an ass just as CaitieCat @ #8 said you were. Ignorant, bigoted & a bad writer. Want to go for racist too? Go all in on being scum!

  • phira

    Ed, I don’t know if you missed the news about Manning, but you’re misgendering and misnaming her.

  • vilstef

    I say dig up Richard Nixon and make him President. Nixon dead does less harm than lawless clowns alive. The lawless White House and Executive branch is Nixon’s dream ccome true-he should live. . .wait-die that dream!

  • colnago80

    Re lynxreign @ #12

    Hey, I couldn’t care less where Manning does time. I’m only offering my opinion as to the choices that will be made by the US prison system.

  • lynxreign

    colnago80 @15

    And misgendering someone repeatedly & “yawn”ing at someone who points out correctly that you’re not going to listen.

    I’m glad you don’t care so much that you’ve been here for 3 posts about it.

  • Re: the pronoun issue: Language Log is on the case (

  • Dennis N

    Ed writes his posts a day or two ahead of time, so assumedly before the announcement

  • eric

    Here’s a concept: if the leak includes arguably illegal conduct by the government, you can only put a leaker on trial after clearing the matter of the legality of the government’s actions first.

  • gridlore

    So, it’s OK to commit a crime if you think you’re doing it for a good reason? Seriously? I’m waiting for your impassioned defense of those who kill abortion doctors because they believe that abortion is murder.. that’s the same thing right?

    Manning didn’t “expose criminal acts”, he dumped 250,000 classified documents onto the net. That, as his trial showed, made him guilty of 20 felony charges. The sentence was right.

    As for PVT Manning’s gender identity; maybe she should have thought of that before she broke her oath as a soldier and committed multiple felonies. The Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth provides inmates with all necessary medical care. Hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery are not considered necessary. According to the US Army, they are holding PVT Bradley Manning, and any changes will have to wait.

  • So, it’s OK to commit a crime if you think you’re doing it for a good reason?

    I don’t know. I’d ask Rosa Parks, but she died a while back.

  • exdrone

    I have no compassion for Manning. If she had leaked a handful of clearly criminal incidents, I would afford her a designation as a leaker, but indiscriminantly dumping thousands of secrets put sources and soldiers at risk. She is a criminal and deserves to do her time.

  • Chiroptera

    So, it’s OK to commit a crime if you think you’re doing it for a good reason?

    Well, avoiding the dishonest framing of the issues that are typical of the apologists for authoritarianism, I will point out that civil disobedience has a respected history in the western democracies. Someone has already mentioned Rosa Parks. I would also add Martin Luther King, Jr., the Underground Railroad, Daniel Ellsberg, and the Vietnam draft dodgers and peace protesters. All of these involved breaking laws that we (or at least most of us) recognize for a good and worth cause.

    It is a legitimate question whether Manning’s actions meet the standards for appropriate action in the service of a worthy cause, just like it’s a legitimate question whenever anyone commits an action of civil disobedience. Civil rights advocates are in the right; their breaking of the laws should be applauded. Anti-abortion vandals are in the wrong; their breaking of the law is rightly condemned.

    It is pretty much a principle of the liberal enlightenment that personal conscience sometimes must over ride obeying the laws. If you take such an action, if you are on the right side then you can hope to be praised by the public and your crimes pardoned. On the other hand, one should also be prepared to be punished by the authorities, and if you are wrong then you may be judged harshly by history.

  • Actually, it is my information that Manning could get out in as little as 7 years.

    About the same amount of time as the “kill team” soldiers who killed civilians in Afghanistan for fun. USA! USA! USA!

  • How about Jonathan Pollard who’s been in the slammer for selling information to a friendly government

    Yeah, because that’s just like trying to disclose war crimes committed by a government.

  • dan4

    Pardon my ignorance, but what specific “war crimes” did Manning (supposedly) “expose?”

  • Nepenthe


    Among other things, the “murder” of several “civilians”, including a “journalist” and the maiming of more “civilians”, including another “journalist” and two “children” shot from a “helicopter”. The “murdered journalist” was “wounded” when shot by “soldiers”, who were “joking” about the “attack”. Manning “leaked” the “video” of the “attack” to “Wikileaks”.

    Wikipedia article (includes video)

  • dingojack

    If the Americans had caught Hitler no doubt they would have put him in ‘Club Fed’ for a month or two before releasing him…

    and anyone who reported that would have got 35 years in solitary.

    American ‘justice’ – there’s nothing quite like it..

    ;| Dingo


    Are we sure the US government hasn’t been a fully owned subsidiary of Al Queda since 2000?

  • drizzt

    Only in the United States is a 35 years sentence considered light… When my country went from 20 to 25 years as a maximum sentence (due to a string of murders) I didn’t like it one bit. 20 or even 25 is more than enough to rehabilitate the inmates. That’s what prison is for right ? Rehabilitate, not crime University ? I think Sweden or Norway have 15 years as max, that’s what I’d like to see worldwide. Call me too trusting, or too progressive or too gullible or whatever, but a 15 years max prison sentence would do wonders for the prisoners, and society as a whole, if we make the inmates have jobs, occupations, hobbies, anything and everything to take their mind off crime.

  • Ichthyic

    Pardon my ignorance


    serious question.

    why should anyone pardon your fucking ignorance?

    why should anyone tolerate it?

    if you really wanted to know, you would have gone to look, so either you are too stupid to figure that out, or you are being entirely dishonest in your request, and have simply decided there was no information by fiat.

    so, no, I see no reason to pardon you.

    take a hike, moron.

  • gridlore

    @dingojack 28:

    Actually, the top Nazis we caught were tried. Of the 24 defendants at Nuremberg, 12 were sentenced to death and hanged, 3 were sentenced to life in prison, 4 were given sentences of 10-20 years, 3 were acquitted and 2 were either found medically unfit to stand trial or died before the trial could begin.

  • dan4

    @30: Decaf, dude, decaf.

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    So, it’s OK to commit a crime if you think you’re doing it for a good reason? Seriously?

    Laws have no worth or value independent of whether they produce or further justice.

    I’m waiting for your impassioned defense of those who kill abortion doctors because they believe that abortion is murder.. that’s the same thing right?

    I don’t know. Is whether the premises of an argument are true normally relevant to how it’s received?

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Pardon my ignorance


  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    @30: Decaf, dude, decaf.

    The problem isn’t the coffee, it’s that you’re a condescending, privileged, entitled ass.

  • colnago80

    Re dingojack the chihuahua @ #28

    Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz once opined that if Frankenberger had been taken alive by US troops and put on trial and if her werehad been an active lawyer at the time, he would have defended him in court and got him off.

    Re drizzt @ 29

    The rational for locking people up for life is to prevent them from committing other crimes after release. Case in point, Charles Manson, who will leave the slammer feet first. Contrary to your premise, some prisoners are not rehabilitatable Manson, who is a sociopath, is a textbook example.

  • colnago80

    Re gridlore @ #31

    Actually, one of the condemned, Herman Goering, committed suicide before he could be hanged.

  • sundoga

    #23 Chiroptera – I should point out that part of civil disobedience is acceptance of the penalty associated with your actions. MLK and company spent their time behind bars as a part of their protests, and Rosa parks did end up in jail. Bradley/Chelsea Manning broke the law and must pay the penalty for it, regardles of his motives.

  • dan4

    @35 Decaf to you as well, or maybe a sedative, or some sessions with a therapist (especially considering the remark that triggered your bit of verbal abuse at me wasn’t even directed at you).

  • caseloweraz

    The case of Tim DeChristopher is relevant.

    DeChristopher protested an auction for oil and gas leases on public land in Utah by bidding $1.8 million for certain parcels with no funds (or intention) to pay for them. He was removed from the auction by federal agents and spent 21 months in prison.

    After the auction, the Interior Department canceled many of the leases on the basis that they’d had insufficient environmental review. That was just one of the motivations for DeChristopher’s act of civil disobedience. Read the article in Wikipedia.

    Sometimes, yes, breaking the law can be a good thing.

  • davem

    I was a bit shocked at the relatively lenient sentence that the military court handed down to Bradley Manning. He got 35 years,

    You obviously live on another planet, Ed. I’d call 35 years barbaric.

  • mikeymeitbual

    The problem with applying the concept of “rule of law” to this situation is, as I understand, Manning was tried in a military court instead of a traditional court of law. They have different rules for evidence, procedure, etc.

    As I see it, Manning violated the terms of her employment agreement. Unfortunately, part of the agreement she signed stated the penalty for revealing classified information was a jail sentence and potentially execution.

    She did the morally right thing, but she also signed a legally binding agreement, of which she was aware of the penalties and she violated that agreement. What I think is the biggest travesty is that soldiers who murdered and tortured were given a slap on the wrist and Manning got 35 years. That’s totally backwards in my world view / moral code.