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In a military courtroom in Fort Meade, Maryland, today, another chapter in the long-running court martial of Bradley Manning came to a close. A judge sentenced the young Army private to 35 years in prison. Prosecutors said Manning had pulled off the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history by sharing thousands of secrets with the website WikiLeaks, while his lawyer asked the court for mercy. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One of the longest and strangest military justice cases in years hung on the announcement of just one number: 35 years. Judge Denise Lind found a middle ground between the sentence the prosecution requested, 60 years, and what the defense wanted, 25 years.
Bradley Manning will get credit for the time he's already served, plus several months more for abusive treatment he suffered in a military brig in Virginia. That means Manning could be eligible for parole in about eight years, which still didn't sit well with civil liberties advocates.
BEN WIZNER: Well, this is by far the longest sentence that anyone has ever received for leaking information to the press.
JOHNSON: Ben Wizner works at the American Civil Liberties Union.
WIZNER: We've seen that people who tortured prisoners and ordered the torture of prisoners, that people who were involved in the deaths of civilians, got much more modest sentences than someone who exposed a fair amount of criminal wrongdoing and whose leaks were perceived around the world as very much in the public interest.
JOHNSON: Manning supporters vowed to appeal and to ask President Obama for a pardon or a shorter sentence as early as next week. But the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which received the trove of information from Manning, said the sentence was a, quote, "significant tactical victory." That's because the young Army private could be eligible for early release by the time he's 33 years old. Glenn Sulmasy, an active-duty judge advocate and a professor at the Coast Guard Academy, says the punishment fits the crime.
CAPTAIN GLENN SULMASY: I think really if you look at this, this is an isolated soldier who committed terrible wrongs by what he did, and he's been convicted and now sentenced appropriately at 35 years. I would have liked to have seen more, but I think this is probably sending the right message to anyone thinking it's appropriate or permissible to send out and leak information that's so damaging to U.S. national security interests.
JOHNSON: Just how much harm the leak of war field reports and diplomatic cables did to national security remains under debate. At a press conference after the sentencing, defense lawyer David Coombs called his client a whistle-blower who was motivated by a desire to help people learn about wrongdoing, not to hurt the U.S.
DAVID COOMBS: Pfc. Manning was one of the brave Americans who was not willing to remain silent. Instead, he decided to provide us with information that he believed would spark reform, would spark debate, and he provided us with information that he believed might change the world.
JOHNSON: Coombs also read a brief statement from Manning, directed to his vocal supporters and another audience inside the White House.
COOMBS: 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 and dedicated to the proposition that all - and he puts in here women and men - are created equal.
JOHNSON: Veterans of the military legal system say the government's hard-nosed approach in the Manning case was intended to send a message to other leakers. And the message today's 35-year sentence may have delivered to Russia, where former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has fled to avoid his own Espionage Act leak charges, may keep Snowden overseas for a long while. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.