Following urges by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who offered his own extradition in exchange), President Obama has largely commuted the remaining prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the army intelligence analyst convicted of an enormous 2010 leak that revealed American military and diplomatic activities across the world, disrupted the administration, and made WikiLeaks, the recipient of those disclosures, famous.
Manning will be released in May 2017 according to the White House. The move is part of a final push of pardons and commutations in the closing days of the administration, and Obama has now shortened the sentences of more federal inmates than any other president, bringing the total to 1,385 as of today.
Previously both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden who leaked his cache of documents detailing U.S. intelligence efforts around the same time as Manning’s crime, advocated for her clemency. "Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning," Snowden tweeted. "You alone can save her life."
Manning was arrested in 2010 after leaking 700,000 military files and diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, and her sentence exceeded that received by other individuals recently convicted of releasing classified material. She has twice attempted to commit suicide while incarcerated, and went on a hunger strike in an effort to get the Army to allow her to undertake gender reassignment surgery.
As The New York Times reports, the decision by Obama rescued Manning from an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at the male military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
She has been jailed for nearly seven years, and her 35-year sentence was by far the longest punishment ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction.
Now, under the terms of Mr. Obama’s commutation announced by the White House on Tuesday, Ms. Manning is set to be freed in five months, on May 17 of this year, rather than in 2045.
The commutation also relieved the Department of Defense of the difficult responsibility of her incarceration as she pushes for treatment for her gender dysphoria — including sex reassignment surgery — that the military has no experience providing.
As The New York Times describes, Manning was still known as Bradley Manning when she deployed with her unit to Iraq in late 2009. There, she worked as a low-level intelligence analyst helping her unit assess insurgent activity in the area it was patrolling, a role that gave her access to a classified computer network.
She copied hundreds of thousands of military incident logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which, among other things, exposed abuses of detainees by Iraqi military officers working with American forces and showed that civilian deaths in the Iraq war were likely much higher than official estimates.
The files she copied also included about 250,000 diplomatic cables from American embassies around the world showing sensitive deals and conversations, dossiers detailing intelligence assessments of Guantánamo detainees held without trial, and a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad in two Reuters journalists were killed, among others.
She decided to make all these files public, as she wrote at the time, in the hope that they would incite “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” WikiLeaks’ disclosed them — working with traditional news organizations including The New York Times — bringing notoriety to the group and its founder, Julian Assange.
The disclosures set off a frantic scramble as Obama administration officials sought to minimize any potential harm, including getting to safety some foreigners in dangerous countries who were identified as having helped American troops or diplomats. Prosecutors, however, presented no evidence that anyone was killed because of the leaks.
In her commutation application, Ms. Manning said she had not imagined that she would be sentenced to the “extreme” term of 35 years, a term for which there was “no historical precedent.” (There have only been a handful of leak cases, and most sentence are in the range of one to three years.)
“I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose these materials to the public,” she wrote.
“I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”
The US Constitution allows a president to pardon "offenses against the United States" and commute -- either shorten or end -- federal sentences. Obama has so far granted 148 pardons since taking office in 2009 -- fewer than his predecessors, who also served two terms, George W. Bush (189) and Bill Clinton (396). But he has surpassed any other president in the number of granted, commutations, 1,385, more than the total number given by the past 12 presidents combined.
The White House is expected to announce another round of clemency grants on Thursday, officials said. Most of Obama’s clemency grants have gone to relatively unknown individuals but Tuesday’s batch contained some who are famous, as is typical for presidents in their final days.
But if Chelsea Manning gets a reprieve, shouldn't Snowden as well?
Last week, Press secretary Josh Earnest said there are differences between her case and that of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is facing espionage charges for leaking classified information on controversial surveillance programs. “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” the spokesman told reporters Friday.
“Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy,” he said of the former contractor, who is living in Russia.
To be sure, Obama sang a different tune in 2011, when he said Manning, then known as Bradley, "broke the law" and deserved punishment.
Earnest on Tuesday all but ruled out a pardon for Snowden, saying he has not filed the proper paperwork with the Justice Department. While a formal petition is not legally required, Obama has typically only considered clemency for those who have applied.
Obama’s move could have consequences for the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, whose organization published material leaked by both Manning and Snowden. “If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case,” WikiLeaks tweeted last week.
But the Justice Department does not plan to bring charges against Assange for publishing classified information, according to The Washington Post.
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As The Hill points out, the president’s decision is sure to roil the debate about weighty issues such as intelligence leaks and criminal justice reform.
The move comes at a time when WikiLeaks is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration and lawmakers in both parties for its role in spreading emails allegedly hacked by Russia in an effort to undermine the 2016 elections.
“We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) The administration official insisted that “the cases are entirely different.”
The official said WikiLeaks’ activity “continues to concern the president but that is wholly separate from the decision the president made to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning.”
Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Manning, said he was “relieved and thankful” for the president’s decision. He called the 35-year sentence unfair, arguing it contributed to his client’s poor mental health. “This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life, and we are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman,” said Strangio.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he doesn’t agree with Obama’s decision to release Manning early. “I think on the larger issue of criminal justice reform, the president is really undermining our political capital by granting clemency at an unprecedented rate,” Cornyn said. “People say, well why should we change the sentencing rules in criminal justice reform if the president can just do it with a flick of his pen?”
While it’s the president’s right to commute sentences, Cornyn said, it’s not a wise move. Sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws never received a vote in Obama’s second term, despite enjoying support from him and lawmakers in both political parties.
Instead, Obama has relied on his 2014 clemency initiative to advance his goal of shortening sentences for non-violent offenders he views as unjust.
The president has mostly doled out commutations and pardons to people convicted of drug crimes who received lengthy mandatory minimum sentences under requirements that have since been scaled back by Congress.
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Today Obama also pardoned former Marine General James Cartwright, who was convicted of making false statements to federal investigators as they probed whether he leaked details of a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program. He pleaded guilty in October, and prosecutors have requested a two-year prison sentence.
So the question now is... Will Julian Assange agree to extradition?
If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case https://t.co/MZU30SlfGK— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 12, 2017
For now, the only statement from Wikileaks was the following:
VICTORY: Obama commutes Chelsea Manning sentence from 35 years to 7. Release date now May 17. Background: https://t.co/HndsbVbRer— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 17, 2017
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, who surely was at least a bit hopeful to be named on today's commutations list, had some words of encouragement for Manning:
In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer! https://t.co/PaLvJDvDbl— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 17, 2017
He concluded by thanking Obama.
Let it be said here in earnest, with good heart: Thanks, Obama. https://t.co/IeumTasRNN— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 17, 2017