Next phase of Manning trial: What's at stake in sentencing

Whistle-blower could face 136 years in jail. Even with no "aiding the enemy" charge, a worrying precedent is set

By Natasha Lennard
Published July 31, 2013 8:43PM (EDT)

Based on the verdict ruled in the military court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning Tuesday, the whistle-blower could face 136 years in jail. He was cleared of the troubling (and most grave) "aiding the enemy" charge, but military Judge Col. Denise Lind found the defendant guilty of  six counts of violating the Espionage Act for handing a vast trove of classified U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks.

As Manning's ordeal moves from verdict to sentencing (a portion of the trial that is expected to last some weeks), a different set of fulcrums surrounding the whistle-blower case deserves attention.

Above all, the issue of legal precedents set by the judge's verdicts must be considered alongside the ideological precedents set by the specifics of the punishment that have been and will be exacted against Manning. What is already clear, evidenced by Manning's lengthy and often torturous military pretrial detention, is that the U.S. government is willing (to chilling effect) to strip individuals like Manning -- who expose the darkest sides of U.S. military operations -- of most every right afforded its citizens. What has happened to Manning's body -- the Army private's very personhood -- sends a chilling message to those who would follow in his footsteps.

Kevin Gosztola, who has reported in depth on every twist and turn of the Manning case, outlined the shape that the sentencing arguments will take:

Military prosecutors will call witnesses first. Two witnesses will be called today – one will testify in an open session and the other will testify in a closed session.

The defense will put on its sentencing case and call witnesses after the government, and each side has more than twenty witnesses on their lists.

Unlike civilian courts, sentencing begins immediately after the verdict. Evidence that will be heard by the judge will include the impact of the crime on victims or the unit’s morale, Manning’s history as a trained intelligence analyst and any other extenuating or mitigating circumstances that might be relevant to the offenses he was convicted of committing.

There will be a presentation of sentencing instructions by the government and the defense, urging military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, on how to ultimately determine the length of his sentence.

Free speech advocates and press freedom groups breathed a collective sigh of relief at the decision not to convict on the "aiding the enemy " charge, since a ruling against Manning on this charge would have set troubling precedent for journalists, publishers and online denizens publishing any material critical of the U.S. government that may fall into enemy hands (an easy situation to imagine in this digital age). It is troubling enough that the government prosecutors argued for such a charge, and were permitted to bring it in the first place (especially in this era of ill-defined national security enemies and fast-paced information sharing). With her "not guilty" verdict in this instance, we are saved the establishment of one such worrying legal precedent -- a "tiny sliver of justice" as Glenn Greenwald put it.

But as Bradley Manning Support Network member Nathan Fuller noted on Twitter, with the sentencing portion of the trial, "no minimum [sentences are] required and new evidence [is] allowed. This fight is far from over." If verdicts are based in the logic of what is or is not legal,  then sentencing is based in the far murkier juridical landscape of punishment, deserts and example-making. The punitive aspect of any justice system is at base (and historically) about setting examples by exacting punishment on the site of the body -- the guilty body is imprisoned and denied the freedoms afforded the innocent. Before even deemed guilty, Manning's body was denied sunlight, isolated, stripped naked and regularly and aggressively manhandled. The soldier is expected by legal experts to spend decades in prison. As in a case like Manning's, the mistreatment and removal from society of his person, and the way in which the whistle-blower has and has not been put in public view, is all important (and will become increasingly so) during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Manning spoke once, eruditely and at length, during a pretrial hearing to offer a statement of motives. Since motives are considered admissible in the sentencing portion of the trial, Manning may again be called to the stand by the defense team. This will likely be one of the last times the whistle-blower will have a chance to speak outside of a jail in many years.

The chant "I am Bradley Manning," popular around support rallies that have dotted the nation and beyond throughout his detention, carries a lie and a truth at the same time. We are not Bradley Manning: We are not the 25-year-old military analyst, facing a possible 136-year sentence, having been held in conditions in military brigs that a U.N. torture expert deemed "cruel and unusual," for doing what we thought was right when faced with horrifying truths. We are not, in that sense, Bradley Manning at all. But insofar as Bradley Manning has become both a symbol and an example, we could indeed be Bradley Manning. The U.S. government has turned the soldier into an example and that very point is made: Anyone who speaks out against the actions of the U.S. government or military like Manning did could be treated like Manning. It's a truth Ed Snowden knows and fears all too well. Crucially, insofar as Manning has been denied the basic rights purportedly afforded citizens during his detention so far, we are not Bradley Manning, but anyone who so dares could be.

Indeed, it stands out as deeply relevant that Manning's gender identity remains, in the view of the public, ambiguous. Chat logs with Adrian Lamo (who eventually sold out the whistle-blower) suggest that Manning may self-identify as female and prefer to go by "Brianna." But such has been the whistle-blower's punishment that even the ability to gender self-determine has been removed, as the soldier was held in a state of exception. Bradley Manning is an example, exempted from a world in which people have voices with which to speak about their gender and their desires -- such conventions of personhood are denied the prisoner. Herein lies the crux: Even Manning (the individual) cannot be Bradley Manning, a figure that can only, under the weight of fierce state persecution, exist as an example until he (or she) is free and that promises to be many years from now.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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