Obama commutes Chelsea Manning’s Sentence

Hira Rahman - 1B Nanotechnology
Posted on: January 28, 2017

As one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former military intelligence analyst condemned to a 35-year sentence for her decision to release hundreds of thousands of military logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, which exposed the US government’s questionable actions.

Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward, the two lawyers representing Chelsea Manning, made a joint statement, praising Obama’s decision to grant Manning clemency:

“Ms. Manning is the longest-serving whistle-blower in the history of the United States. Her 35-year sentence for disclosing information that served the public interest and never caused harm to the United States was always excessive, and we’re delighted that justice is being served in the form of this commutation.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (the organization that represents Manning) had been trying to have Manning’s sentence commuted for several months, citing that Manning faced imminent danger as a transgender woman at an all-male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Much of the 6 years she spent incarcerated was spent in solitary confinement (which is regarded as torture by the United Nations). This, coupled with Manning’s struggle to receive medical aid for her sex reassignment has caused her severe distress and has led to repeated suicide attempts.

Under the terms for the commutation announced by the White House on January 17, Manning will be released on May 17. The 4-month delay is a part of a standard transition period to allow officials to find living accommodations for Manning after her release.

The act of clemency was a notable decision on the president’s part, since his administration has been criticised for its harsh sentencing of whistleblowers. Prior administrations have only experienced a handful of leaks with sentences ranging from one to three year. It is no debate that Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence was by far the longest punishment imposed by the United States Government for a leak conviction.

Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning) was deployed of Iraq in late 2009 where she had access to a classified computer network as an intelligence analyst. In early 2010, she leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars to WikiLeaks. Among the logs were documents exposing the abuse of detainees at the hands of Iraqi military officers working with American forces, a much higher number civilian deaths than disclosed by the US government, conversations and dossiers detailing the assessments of Guantánamo detainees held without trial, a video of the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike which killed 12 people, including two journalists, among others.

Manning confessed to her actions and apologized at her court-martial, stating that she had been dealing with personal issues at the time. Testimonies from other army personnel confirmed her allegations and revealed that she had been in emotional and mental crisis as she was confronted with the fact that she had gender dysphoria and was also gay.

She was charged with 22 offences, including charges of treason, multiple counts under the Espionage Act and “aiding the enemy” and was ultimately convicted for 17 charges and was sentenced wit 35 years in prison.

After six years, Manning has been officially commuted by the now former president, Barack Obama. Manning’s commutation also brings up questions about the fates of another prominent whistle blower, Edward Snowden, and the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, with whom Manning shared the classified military documents.

Julian Assange had initially stated that he would turn himself in to the US government for extradition should Barack Obama pardon Chelsea Manning. Now that Manning’s sentence has officially been commuted, there is a lot of speculation as to whether or not Assange will keep his word and face any charges against him. To be clear, the United States hasn’t officially charged Assange with anything however it turns out that he has reneged his initial offer.

Barry Pollack, Assange’s US-based attorney, stated that “Mister Assange welcomes the announcement that Ms. Manning’s sentence will be reduced and she will be released in May, but this is well short of what he sought. He had called for Chelsea Manning to receive clemency and be released immediately.”

Under the terms of Chelsea Manning’s commutation, that is essentially what Obama did. Her sentence will be commuted in May and she will be allowed to leave in May. Assange’s decision to back out of his earlier proposition is completely understandable since the United States Government wants to go after him quite aggressively. Thus, it safe to assume that Assange’s proposition was never genuine and even if it was, he has no plans to follow through on it at this point.

Chelsea Manning’s clemency has also lead people to question if Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia after leaking documents that revealed details about how the National Security Agency (NSA) use of illegal surveillance on American citizens and world leaders, will also be pardoned.

Edward Snowden, the exiled American whistleblower, continues to be a controversial figure in the United States. Depending on who you ask, Edward Snowden may either be considered a traitor or a hero. After he began leaking classified government documents relating the United States’ mass surveillance program, which he obtained while working as an NSA contractor, Snowden fled prosecution to Hong Kong and then later to Russia.

The leaked documents revealed that the US intelligence community and its partners (such as the UK, Israeli and German spy agencies) took part in political and industrial espionage on top of espionage for counterterrorism efforts, affecting civilians and government officials in the US and abroad. The documents also revealed that the surveillance system was created without the authority or knowledge of legislative bodies and the public. Snowden’s actions not only began a public debate about the role of government surveillance programs but also pushed government organizations to be more transparent.

When asked about Snowden’s future and if he would be excused of his charges, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, stated that the two cases have stark differences:

“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. 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.”

While commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence is admirable and is a cause for celebration, it is long overdue. The Obama administration’s harsh treatment of whistle-blowers can neither be forgiven nor forgotten especially since Edward Snowden still lives in exile. As the world welcomes a new American president, it will be interesting to see how this next administration handles leaks and how transparent it will be about its actions both domestic and abroad.