US Army private Bradley Manning apologised on Wednesday for leaking secret intelligence files to WikiLeaks and admitted for the first time he had harmed his country and others.
“I’m sorry that my actions have hurt people and have hurt the United States,” he told a military judge, Colonel Denise Lind, at a sentencing hearing at Fort Meade, northeast of Washington.
Manning, convicted last month of espionage for his massive leak of classified US battlefield reports and diplomatic cables, said he was ready to face punishment for his actions.
“I want to go forward,” he said. “I understand I must pay the price.”
The 25-year-old soldier faces up to 90 years in prison for his offences, which include espionage and computer fraud.
He was acquitted of a more serious charge of deliberately “aiding the enemy”, which could have landed him in jail for life without parole.
The dramatic statement in court marked the first time Manning had expressed regret over the leaks, the biggest in US history.
The former junior intelligence analyst has become a folk hero to his supporters, who see him as a whistle-blower lifting the lid on America’s foreign policy.
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But the US government has painted him as a reckless traitor who put his fellow soldiers and country in danger when he handed over 700,000 secret documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks while deployed in Iraq.
Manning’s defence team has argued that he was a naive but well-intentioned young man who hoped to ignite a public debate over the conduct of American diplomats and troops abroad.
“Bradley is certainly a person who had his heart in the right place and he was thinking about you ... the American public,” defence lawyer David Coombs said on Wednesday.
“His one goal was to make this world a better place.”
The defence has suggested that Manning’s superiors ignored repeated signs of his emotional distress and should never have allowed him to deploy to Iraq or retain his security clearance.
In poignant testimony on Wednesday, Manning’s older sister Casey Major and his aunt Debra van Alstyne talked about his traumatic childhood, when he was often abandoned by his alcoholic parents.
They described his mother as “very mean” and suicidal, saying he was often left alone on the family’s rural farm in Oklahoma and fed baby food until the age of 12.
“It’s amazing how much he matured. I just hope he can be who he wants to be, just be happy,” his sister said.
Earlier at the sentencing hearing, experts testified that Manning was plunged into a solitary anguish as he struggled over his sexual identity amid a “hostile” military environment.
“Being in the military and having a gender issue does not exactly go hand-in-hand,” Captain Michael Worsley, a military clinical psychologist, told the court.
“At the time, the military was not exactly friendly towards the gay community.”
Worsley diagnosed Manning with a personality disorder and then a “gender identity disorder”, and said the soldier would have faced an agonising plight in the macho world of the military.
“The pressure would have been incredible in an almost openly hostile environment,” the doctor told the court.
Manning “was super-critical of himself. He was feeling he was never good enough”.
Another witness for the defence, David Moulton, a psychiatrist and expert in military criminal cases, said Manning was facing “hyper stress” at the time.
“He was under severe emotional stress” when he began “considering living as a woman”, he said.
Striving for “something great” in his life, Manning believed he was fulfilling a moral obligation with his leaks, Moulton said.
“He was under the impression that the information he leaked was going to change the world,” he said. “In his opinion, it would lead to a greater good.”