(CN) — As hundreds of pages pour into a military appeals court in support of convicted WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, her attorney pulled no punches in describing the federal government’s reaction to what were at the time record-breaking disclosures of classified information.
“I think the government lost its mind and completely overreacted,” attorney Vince Ward told Courthouse News in a phone interview.
Manning is now serving a 35-year sentence for uploading hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan incident reports, Guantanamo Bay detainee profiles and other files to WikiLeaks. Ward called Manning’s sentence “half a death sentence.”
Her lead military prosecutor recently acknowledged in an interview that Manning’s probe was the largest cybersecurity investigation in the history of the Department of the Army.
Faced with the sudden release of embarrassing secrets, military prosecutors charged Manning with a battery of violations including the Espionage Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and aiding the enemy — the military equivalent of treason.
But Manning’s lawyers say that military court proceedings showed her to be an idealist concerned with exposing government misconduct and abuse.
“No whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly,” the 209-page appeal states. “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,” the brief continues. “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.”
Col. Denise Lind, the military judge, acquitted Manning of the aiding-the-enemy charge, a count that theoretically could have carried the death penalty.
Prosecutors decided before the beginning of trial not to seek capital punishment, but they vigorously pursued other offenses that could have kept Manning locked up for life.
In court papers dated Thursday but released today, Manning’s lawyers and other advocates say that the lesser sentence that their client got is still far too heavy.
Manning’s lawyers revealed long ago that they intended to argue that the Espionage Act equates First Amendment-protected activity to spying.
The argument is all the more ambitious in that argues that a law that has been on the books since President Woodrow Wilson signed it shortly after World War I is unconstitutional.
Rarely used until recent years, President Barack Obama’s administration has deployed this statute against leaks of classified information seven times during his term, more times than any other commander-in-chief.
Manning’s lead appellate attorney Nancy Hollander cited to this history in a statement referring to the administration’s “war against whistleblowers.”
For Ward, Hollander’s co-counsel and partner at the New Mexico-based firm Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, their legal team’s argument boils down to a simple proposition.
“I think the core issue is that Chelsea disclosed for a justifiable reason,” Ward said.
Another significant part of Manning’s appeal seeks mercy for the time she spent alone in an 8-by-6 foot cell in a now-shuttered Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, a stint that led a United Nations investigator to denounce her “cruel, degrading and inhuman” treatment.
“The government restricted Pfc. Manning to solitary confinement for nine months without any meaningful human contact while awaiting trial,” Manning’s appeal states.
Manning took the stand before her trial to describe how guards kept a hawk-like watch over her every movement in that cell, where she was held under suicide watch because of a depression that sank in at the time of her arrest.
At the time, Manning was known as Bradley, and had not yet come to terms with her transgender identity at the time criminal prosecution uprooted her life.
Judge Lind agreed to shave 112 days off Manning’s sentence for the “unlawful pretrial punishment,” but her lawyers say that this slim sentencing credit “trivializes the harm associated with placing a mentally ill inmate in solitary confinement for several months.”
In a friend-of-the-court brief, Amnesty International said that the military judge was flatly wrong to rule that Manning was not held in solitary confinement, under the military prison’s bureaucratic regulations. The human rights group notes that the United States is a signatory to a different set of rules: the Nelson Mandela Rules, which define in the United Nations’ standards for prisoners.
Several other advocacy groups took to Manning’s side, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Society Justice Initiative, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Ward said that he met with Manning in her lockup at U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, two weeks before Thursday’s filing.
“Nobody knows this stuff better than her, to be honest with you,” the attorney said.
Manning has commented on her case, and political issues generally, for The Guardian newspaper.
“She’s a transformative figure, and she also has a political voice,” Ward said of Manning.
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