The sentence given to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking U.S. secrets will be judged by Americans according to the answer they give to the basic question shadowing 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 pass for justice.
In pronouncing sentence Wednesday, military judge Col. Denise Lind roughly cut the difference between the 60 years sought by prosecutors and the 25-year maximum suggested by the defense, and gave him 35 years. That Solomonic decision followed her earlier choice of a middle path: The judge had found Pfc. 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, Col. Lind got it about right. Pfc. 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 J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor now holed up in Russia after leaking his own trove of secrets, Pfc. Manning is far removed from the World War II generation that well understood that "loose lips sink ships." The Internet generation thinks nothing of sharing information and does not fully understand that a whistleblower's whistle can enlighten the public but also summon death for individual Americans.
While the actual damage done was not fully explored in the trial, this was a case in which the judge needed to send a message of deterrence to others who serve -- and this she did (although he 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.