Why Chelsea Manning’s Release is Nothing to Celebrate

I was Chelsea Manning’s civilian defense attorney.  For three years, I ate, breathed and slept the Manning case.  Today—the day that Manning is released from prison—should be a day of unadulterated joy for me.  But it’s not.  It is a day that I am reflecting on how the military justice system could veer so far off course that a Presidential Commutation was needed to redress a grievous wrong.

When I was initially retained, I did not have a clue what was in store for me.  I had no idea that the case would become one of the most complex and controversial cases in the history of military justice.  I just knew that a young Private had disclosed a great deal of information to an organization named WikiLeaks.  I certainly knew that there would be a price to pay—after all, Soldiers cannot go around disclosing classified information, even if they have good intentions.  However, since the disclosure had not caused any material harm to the United States, I assumed that a reasonable plea deal could be worked out.

The prosecutors offered a forty-year deal in exchange for Manning pleading guilty to all offenses, including aiding the enemy.  Rather than accept a deal that would result in Manning spending decades in prison at Fort Leavenworth, we rolled the dice and requested a court-martial before a military judge.  I thought there was no way that an experienced and dispassionate judge, who had sentenced murderers, rapists and child molesters, would see forty years (or anything close to that) as the appropriate punishment for Manning’s crimes.  I was wrong.  The military judge in the case sentenced Manning to thirty-five years in prison.

Throughout the three years it took to complete the trial, I clung to my faith in the military justice system.  I braced myself for a sentence of about ten years—clearly long enough to punish Manning for her crimes and to act as a deterrent to other Soldiers who might contemplate disclosing classified information.  When the judge announced that Manning would be going to prison for thirty-five years, I was stunned.  But mostly, I felt a great deal of guilt for having told Manning, for three years, to trust the system.

I have tried hundreds of courts-martial in the past twenty years.  Some have gone my way, some haven’t.  Except for the Manning case, I have never had doubts about the quality of justice that the military dispenses.  But the particular constellation of players involved in this case, the desire to make an example out of Manning, and the “win at all costs” mentality of the prosecution created a powder keg where the ability to achieve a just result was impossible.

So I don’t see Manning’s commutation as a victory.  I see it as an unfortunate failure of military justice to do its job.

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