The sentence given on Wednesday to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking government secrets will be judged by Americans according to the answer they offer to the basic question that has shadowed these proceedings: Is this troubled soldier a hero or a traitor?
To those who consider him a hero, no time in prison would be the popular response. To those who believe he is a traitor, 90 years behind bars, the theoretical maximum, would serve justice.
In pronouncing sentence, the presiding military judge, Col. Denise Lind, roughly split the difference between the 60 years sought by prosecutors and the 25-year maximum suggested by the defense, and gave him 35 years.
That decision followed her earlier choice of a middle path: The judge had found Private Manning, 25, guilty of 20 crimes, including six breaches of the Espionage Act, but not guilty of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge.
In both respects, Colonel Lind got it about right. Private Manning, an Iraq war veteran, did not fit neatly into the convenient pigeonholes constructed by detractors and supporters.
An unwitting innocent at large battling with his own sexual identity in the macho culture of the military, he potentially put fellow soldiers at risk by digitally copying and sending to WikiLeaks more than 700,000 secret documents. But as he said in an apology during the sentencing phase: “When I made these decisions, I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”
As with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who is holed up in Russia after leaking his own trove of secrets, Private Manning is far removed from the World War II generation that understood that “loose lips sink ships.” The Internet generation thinks nothing of sharing information and does not fully understand that a whistle-blower can enlighten the public, but also summon death for individual Americans.
While the actual damage done was not fully explored in the trial, the judge needed to send a message of deterrence to others who serve, although Private Manning may be released in a little more than eight years. At the same time, she recognized that the defendant brought more human frailty than malice to his crimes.