Obama Will Free Chelsea Manning, a Final Ceasefire in His War on Leakers

From Wired:

chelsea-manning

When army private Chelsea Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking a record-breaking trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks, she received a record-breaking sentence for the crime: 35 years in a military prison. Now, with only days remaining in his second term, President Obama has vastly reduced that sentence—and in doing so, added one bright spot to his own unprecedented record of harshly prosecuting anyone who leaks government secrets to the press.

On Tuesday, Obama agreed to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, whose leaks to WikiLeaks included hundreds of thousands of military documents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a quarter-million secret State Department files. Rather than serve the nearly three remaining decades of her stint, she’s set to be released on May 17. Manning, according to a White House statement, is one of 273 prisoners to whom the president granted clemency Tuesday. “These 273 individuals learned that our nation is a forgiving nation,” reads a statement from the White House, “where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward.”

An Unexpected Release
The Manning decision, however, represents an about-face from the draconian policies Obama’s Justice Department has applied to those who have been caught leaking classified government documents to the media during his administration. In the last eight years, the Obama administration has prosecuted eight individuals under the Espionage Act for leaking secrets to news outlets, essentially charging journalistic sources as spies. That’s more than all other presidents in history, combined.

Several of those leakers, including former CIA agent John Kiriakou and State Department contractor Stephen Kim, served relatively short prison sentences of one or two years for sharing classified documents with the press. But Manning’s treatment was far worse. Not only was her sentence the longest ever attached to her crime, she was also kept for long stretches in solitary confinement, and was refused some elements of a medical transition she had requested to become female. (Manning had previously been known as Bradley Manning, and chose to become known as Chelsea Manning only after her conviction.) Manning attempted suicide twice, and both times was punished with more solitary confinement.

“I don’t think this erases what Obama has done, being the president who’s prosecuted more leakers and whistleblowers than any other in history,” says Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It may be him looking towards his legacy and realizing that a 35-year prison sentence that involves torture and solitary confinement was unjust and not going to be looked at well in the history books. But you have to give him credit for doing the right thing here.”

No About Face
The case of one other high-profile leaker still remains unresolved: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden remains in Moscow, and Obama has shown no sign that he’ll pardon him or drop his Espionage Act charges before leaving office on January 20th. Nor, apparently, does Snowden expect it; he wrote a message to the president on Twitter just days ago saying that “if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning. You alone can save her life.” On Tuesday, he offered a congratulatory message: “Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer!”

The White House has hinted that it’s not about to extend the same clemency to Snowden that it now has to Manning. “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,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said in a press briefing earlier this week. “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.”

Timm, who serves with Snowden on the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s board of directors, says he doesn’t think Manning’s commutation means much for Snowden’s legal fate. “But I’m sure he’s smiling about it right now,” Timm added.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange offered congratulations as well, tweeting, “Thank you to everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning’s clemency. Your courage & determination made the impossible possible.” He did not comment on previous WikiLeaks claims that Assange would agree to US extradition should Manning’s sentence be commuted.

Despite the merciful outcome of Manning’s case, press freedom watchdogs still worry that Obama’s prosecutions of leakers sets a dangerous precedent; one that will likely be picked up by a successor with a reputation for vindictive grudges against the press and its sources. Six years ago, Trump privately said that he believed those responsible for WikiLeaks’ leaks should face “the death penalty or something.” He called earlier this month for an investigation into the leak of a classified report on Russian hacking to NBC News. Obama’s hawkish prosecution of leakers could make it far easier for Trump to continue the same policy.

“Today’s news will not make good the harm done on Obama’s watch,” wrote Sarah Harrison, the acting director of the Courage Foundation, a legal defense group that’s backed Manning, in a statement. “Chelsea’s conviction under the Espionage Act and 35-year sentence set a terrible precedent that is left entirely intact by this commutation. Who knows what Donald Trump will do with this precedent, and these powers, that Obama has left him?”

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