Chelsea Manning Appeals 35-Year Sentence For Leaking Files
from the seems-a-bit-extreme dept
It’s been almost three years since Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail for leaking a bunch of State Department cables to Wikileaks in what she claims was an act of whistleblowing (though, obviously, some disagree). As we noted in the past, even if you disagree with the whistleblowing claim, the leak did lead to some important discussions about what the US government was doing in certain areas and (contrary to some hyperbolic claims) did not lead to a single death. In addition, we’ve pointed out that people who were flat out selling secrets to the Russians, or simply full-on terrorists, have received lighter sentences. Something does not seem at all right with that.
And now, Manning has officially appealed the conviction and sentence. The full filing is a massive 209 pages and seems to challenge just about everything about the case against Manning, and makes Constitutional arguments around the First Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Sixth Amendment and Eighth Amendment. The basic argument, however, still relies on the “whisteblower, not a spy” defense:
For what PFC Manning did, the punishment is grossly unfair and unprecedented. No whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly. Throughout trial the prosecution portrayed PFC Manning as a traitor and accused her of placing American lives in danger, but nothing could be further from the truth.
PFC Manning disclosed the materials because under the circumstances she thought it was the right thing to do. She believed the public had a right to know about the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the loss of life, and the extent to which the government sought to hide embarrassing information of its wrongdoing. At sentencing PFC Manning took responsibility for the disclosures and admitted she should have considered other lawful ways of expressing these concerns. But she was not disloyal and did not harm anyone, nor did she intend to.
There are a lot of details in the filings, obviously, but the appeal is focused on six “errors” it claims were made in the original case:
First, as set forth in Assignment of Error I, the government violated Article 13, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), by subjecting PFC Manning to unlawful pretrial confinement for nearly a year. The military judge correctly found Article 13 error, but did not fully credit PFC Manning for the deplorable and inhumane conditions, which were tantamount to solitary confinement. For this alone the charges and specifications should be reversed or her punishment substantially reduced.
Second, as set forth in Assignments of Error II, III, and IV, the government overcharged the case to expose PFC Manning to excessive punishment. This appeal challenges the convictions related to 18 U.S.C. §§ 641, 1030(a)(1) and 793(e). Rather than charging PFC Manning for mishandling classified information, a charge she admitted to, the government charged her with stealing databases (Section 641), using unauthorized software on a classified computer system (Section 1030(a)(1)), and disclosing classified information with knowledge it might harm the national defense (Section 793(e)). As addressed below, the military judge misapprehended and misapplied the law with respect to these statutes, which unfairly inflated the penalty landscape.
Third, in Assignment of Error V, the defense challenges the military judge?s consideration of aggravation evidence that was not directly related to or resulting from the offenses. And finally, in Assignment of Error VI, the defense urges this Court to exercise its broad powers to reconsider the appropriateness of PFC Manning?s sentence to confinement. These last two Assignments of Error are at the core of PFC Manning?s appeal.
While the filing claims the last two errors are at the core, I’m probably most interested in errors II, III and IV, which are basically arguing that the government was abusing the CFAA to claim that what Manning did was much worse than what she actually did. Abusing the CFAA to lock people up for simple actions? Where have we heard that one before….
Meanwhile, the ACLU has filed an amicus brief as well, hitting hard on the ridiculousness of the Espionage Act and its use in this case:
It is a pervasive feature of our democracy that government and military officials at all levels regularly disclose what may broadly be considered ?information relating to the national defense.? They do so in pursuit of various agendas. Some disclose information to further the government?s preferred messages, some to pursue private agendas, and some to inform the public of information critical to democratic accountability. Until Private First Class (?PFC?) Manning was convicted before a general court-martial of six counts of violating the Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. § 793(e), however, no person in the history of this nation had been sentenced to decades in prison for the crime of disclosing truthful information to the public and press.
The conviction and sentence of PFC Manning under the Espionage Act must be overturned for two reasons. First, the Espionage Act is unconstitutionally vague, because it provides the government a tool that the First Amendment forbids: a criminal statute that allows the government to subject speakers and messages it dislikes to discriminatory prosecution. Second, even if the Act were not unconstitutional in all its applications, the military judge?s application of the Act to PFC Manning violated the First Amendment because the military judge did not permit PFC Manning to assert any defense that would allow the court to evaluate the value to public discourse of any of the information she disclosed. The military judge therefore failed to weigh the public interest in the disclosures against the government interest in preventing them, as required by the First Amendment. For these reasons, PFC Manning?s conviction for violating the Espionage Act should be vacated.
I have no idea what, if any, chances there are that this appeal is successful. Without knowing that much about how military court works, I’m still guessing the chances of success are… slim.