Obama commutes whistleblower's sentence: Chelsea Manning to walk free in 120 days

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Yesterday, mere days before he is to leave office, U.S. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning from 35 years to time served. Manning, who in 2010 released thousands of classified documents to the public through WikiLeaks detailing abuses of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has already served almost seven years in prison and is now scheduled for release on May 17 of this year.

Artist's rendition of Manning as she views herself.
Image: Alicia Neal.

The information Manning released to the public through WikiLeaks and The Guardian in 2010 included diplomatic accounts, videos, military incident logs, and battle plans, including footage of an American Apache helicopter firing on suspected Iraqi insurgents, reports of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay without trial, and records of detainees abused by the Iraqi military. Many in Congress have denounced Manning as a traitor, stating the breach endangered U.S. national security. Manning was convicted in 2013 of 22 charges, including espionage, but acquitted of aiding the enemy.

Republican senator John McCain, who ran for president against Obama in 2008, said "It is a sad, yet perhaps fitting commentary on President Obama's failed national security policies that he would commute the sentence of an individual that endangered the lives of American troops, diplomats, and intelligence sources by leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, a virulently anti-American organization that was a tool of Russia's recent interference in our elections."

Not everyone has considered Manning's actions to be wrong. "Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses," says Margaret Huang, executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International, "and as a result her own human rights have been violated." Huang went on to call Obama's order for Manning's release "long overdue." Despite being a trans woman, Manning was housed in a men's prison, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She spent a long period in solitary confinement and attempted suicide twice in 2016.

Obama's staff told the press WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's promise to agree to U.S. extradition if Manning was granted clemency had nothing to do with the decision. Assange is currently living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he is claiming asylum. He faces rape accusations from two Swedish women.

The Obama administration has seen what The New York Times calls an "unprecedented crackdown on leaks of government secrets." Manning is among more than 1,500 individuals whom President Obama has granted clemency during his tenure. White House Press Secretary Josh Ernest was asked if NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden would also be pardoned. Ernest said no, saying the information Snowden released was more dangerous to the U.S. public and pointed out that while Manning had gone through a formal trial and acknowledged wrongdoing, "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."

This week, Obama also commuted the sentences of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist linked to bombings in the 1970s and 1980s, James E. Cartwright, a former Marine general and White House Chief of Staff convicted of lying to the FBI, and over two hundred other individuals, mostly drug offenders. He also pardoned 63 people outright.