By Christopher Twarowski and Rashed Mian
Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army whistleblower sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking more than 700,000 classified U.S. State Department and military documents in 2010 regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is coming home.
In an astonishing announcement Tuesday, President Obama commuted the bulk of Manning’s sentence, stating the former private first class will be released in five months, on May 17.
Manning, 29, was convicted on 20 charges, including six under the Espionage Act—a World War I-era law—on Aug. 21, 2012 during a military court martial in Ft. Meade, Maryland, the home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and has since been imprisoned in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. At the time of the leaks and her conviction, she was known as Bradley Manning, having changed her name and announced her identification as a woman the following day.
“I’m relieved and thankful that the president is doing the right thing and commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence,” Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project representing Manning, said in a statement Tuesday. “Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement—including for attempting suicide—and has been denied access to medically necessary health care. 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, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many.”
“Ms. Manning is the longest serving whistleblower in the history of the United States,” said Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward, Manning’s appellate counselors, in a joint statement. “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 lawyers remarked that the president’s decision came after “an outpouring of support for Manning since her unfair and egregious sentence and the ongoing mistreatment throughout her incarceration,” additionally noting that in December, the ACLU and more than a dozen other LGBT groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to grant Manning clemency, in addition to an official White House petition with the same request that secured more than 100,000 signatures.
The ACLU has also represented Manning in a lawsuit against the Department of Defense originally filed in 2014 “over the department’s refusal to treat Manning’s well-documented gender dysphoria,” continues the attorneys’ statement.
The Manning disclosures were made to whistleblower site WikiLeaks, and included the cockpit footage of a U.S. Apache helicopter as it massacred more than a dozen unarmed civilians including two Reuters journalists in a video dubbed “Collateral Murder.”
Manning twice attempted suicide while incarcerated, and has been subject to solitary confinement.
The New York Times was the first to break news of Manning’s sentence being commuted by Obama late Tuesday afternoon.
Supporters celebrated across social media sites at the news:
Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence is extraordinary in that throughout his eight years in office, the Obama Justice Department has spearheaded eight Espionage Act prosecutions against whistleblowers, more than all U.S. administrations combined.
Other caught in the crosshairs, besides Manning, include NSA whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake, former CIA employees Jeffrey Sterling and John Kiriakou, former FBI agents Shamai Leibowitz and Donald Sachtleben, and state Department contractor Stephen Kim.
Following the release of “Collateral Murder” was Wikileaks’ publication of the so-called “Afghan War Diaries”—comprised of more than 75,000 US military reports from 2004 to 2010. Next were the “Iraq War Logs,” the largest classified military leak to date, encompassing roughly 400,000 U.S. military reports. In November 2010, WikiLeaks released U.S. diplomatic cables, and in April 2011, the “GITMO Files,” which documented the cases of several hundred Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
Independent journalist Alexa O’Brien, who has been covering Manning’s plight from the very beginning, expressed gratitude upon hearing the news of her commutation.
“I am grateful to the president, not only for, of course, the mercy that he’s shown towards Chelsea Manning but really the wiseness that he’s also shown,” she told the Press. “Executive clemency is very important; it’s an important part of our criminal justice system, and it’s important in national security, too. But specifically in the context of criminal justice, the criminal justice system is infallible, and in terms of national security, our laws are not perfect.
“I think Obama’s decision was the kind of mercy that’s borne of wisdom,” continued O’Brien. “Ultimately, the public trust in the laws, in the rule of law, and the public’s right to information, securing that right…is really critical to national security.”
Speculation about the possibility Obama may commute Manning’s sentence percolated in the days leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, with speculation additionally swirling about whether any presidential leniency would apply to Snowden.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, however, seemed to temper any optimism about the latter last Friday at a press briefing.
“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,” he said. “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.
“So I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different,” he continued. “I can’t speculate at this point about to what degree that will have an impact on the President’s consideration of clemency requests. But I know that there’s a temptation because the crimes were relatively similar to lump the two cases together.
“But there are some important differences,” Earnest added, “including the scale of the crimes that were committed and the consequences of their crimes. Obviously, as Chelsea Manning has acknowledged, and as we have said many times, that the release of the information that she provided to WikiLeaks was damaging to national security. But the disclosures by Edward Snowden were far more serious and far more dangerous.”
Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on leakers hasn’t just applied to federal employees, either. Journalists have also been targeted—creating a so-called “chilling effect” among reporters and sources, especially in regards to investigative reporting and national security matters.
The government’s aggressive litigation against Sterling, for example, also included New York Times reporter James Risen, and the Obama Justice Department has also seized phone records from the Associated Press. Also targeted was independent journalist Barrett Brown, who, originally facing more than 100 years in prison for sharing a publicly available hyperlink and threatening an FBI agent, was released in November after serving five years.
Sterling is currently serving 42 months in federal prison. Snowden is relegated to Russia, since his passport has been revoked.
While Manning’s clemency is just one battle in a still-ongoing war against whistleblowers many believe may only intensify under the incoming Trump administration, at least in Manning’s case, there’s some relief and closure that comes from her no longer facing decades in prison for exposing some ugly truths regarding the United State’s covert military actions.
“It’s been six years now, and certainly three years since the trial,” said O’Brien, the independent journalist who’s covered Manning’s case from the very start. “There have been many peaks and valleys through that whole experience. Certainly the weight of a 35-year sentence and that sort of conclusion—you feel it. One of the greatest of difficulties trying to surmount and cover in her trial was the lack of clear public information related to facts about her case and this was even promulgated by people who are her supporters. So I have to say that this decision to me—I’m grateful for it.
“I know there are a lot of people in the criminal justice system who don’t necessarily feel this kind of sense of closure and I don’t want to overlook that, so I’m grateful that I get to feel a sense of closure on the work.”