Chelsea Manning will walk free this May, four years after the transgender army intelligence officer was convicted of leaking a massive amount of confidential US military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks that put them out in public domain becoming a global force of sorts itself.
Manning’s 35-year jail sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama along with hundreds of others as has come to be expected from outgoing presidents’ last days in office. Obama hands over charge to Donald Trump on Friday noon.
The other famous US leaker Edward Snowden, who had appealed for presidential pardon from self-exile in Russia arguing he had performed a public service, was not, however, on the list. But he welcomed Manning’s commutation.
Manning was arrested in 2010 for stealing 700,000 documents while posted as an army intelligence analyst in Iraq. She had handed over these documents to WikiLeaks, which released them in a steady trickle that has come to be identified with the secret-leaking website.
The documents contained military records, including videos of civilians killed in US military raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, and diplomatic cables containing unguarded thoughts, observations and analysis from US diplomats.
Over 3,500 of those state department cables were about India, originating either from the three US missions in New Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai or the state department. They were embarrassing but did little or no damage to relations.
The US never confirmed the veracity of these documents but had at the time argued they had caused irreparable damage, which in hindsight, it is widely held, was a gross exaggeration, that led to no loss of life as feared initially.
A military court acquitted Manning of the more serious charge of aiding the enemy, which could have got her the death punishment, but held her guilty of theft and violating the Espionage Act, which together could add up to 100 years.
But prosecutors sought 80 years, and the court granted 35, which was also the longest prison term given for this crime.
And now just a few months more, and she will be free, to the relief of those who have argued her punishment was much in excess of her crime.
But not for Republicans. Senator John McCain said the commutation of her sentence “is a grave mistake that will encourage further acts of espionage.”
House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan called it “outrageous”. “Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets.”
President-elect Donald Trump, who has tended to side with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange-- who are where they are in no small measure due to Manning--had not said or tweeted a word about it, in support or in opposition.
Bradley Manning began to publicly identify herself as woman shortly after being convicted and changed her name to Chelsea Manning, and underwent gender transition surgery while in custody in 2016.
Held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, she tried to kill herself twice, and her plight has begun to attract attention outside. Supporters started a #HugsForChelsea campaign on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and urged Obama to commute her sentence.
Her supporters succeeded, but not Snowden’s. The two cases may seem similar, but are also significantly different: Manning has expressed remorse for her actions, and Snowden hasn’t, and continues to claim he performed a public service.
‘A forgiving nation’
Obama’s White House counsel Neil Eggleston said the individuals would learn “that our nation is a forgiving nation, 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.”
Prominent names in Obama’s commutation list include Puerto Rican nationalist activist Oscar Lopez Rivera and the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen James Cartwright, who was charged with making false statements during another leak probe.
Others are mainly non-violent drug offenders.
The actions are permanent, and cannot be undone by President-elect Donald Trump.
With his last-minute clemency for Manning and Cartwright, Obama appeared to be softening what has been a hard-line approach to prosecuting leakers.
Manning’s commutation was cheered by LGBT rights activists who had warned about her mental health and treatment as a transgender woman living in a men’s prison, against national security hawks who said she did devastating damage to US interests.
“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,” said Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Manning, adding that Obama’s action could “quite literally save Chelsea’s life.”
Manning and many of the others receiving commutations will be released in May, in line with standard procedure allowing a period for re-entry.
With just days left as president, Obama also pardoned hotelier Ian Schrager, who was sentenced in 1980 to 20 months for tax evasion. The White House said Obama would announce more clemency actions on Thursday — his last full day in office.
Commutations reduce sentences being served, but don’t erase convictions. Pardons generally restore civil rights, such as voting, often after a sentence has been served.
Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who received a pardon, had pleaded guilty in October to making false statements during an investigation into a leak of classified information about a covert cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Prosecutors said Cartwright falsely told investigators that he did not provide information contained in a news article and in a book by New York Times journalist David Sanger, and said he also misled prosecutors about classified information shared with another journalist, Daniel Klaidman.
The Justice Department sought a sentence of two years, saying employees of the US government are entrusted each day with sensitive classified information.
Puerto Ricans had long demanded the release of Lopez, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for his role in a violent struggle for independence for the US island territory. Lopez had belonged to the ultranationalist Armed Forces of National Liberation, which has claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings at public and commercial buildings in U.S. cities during the 1970s and 1980s.
The 74-year-old’s term will expire in May. The White House noted that absent a commutation, Lopez likely would have died in prison.
What about Assange?
Obama’s commutation for Manning also raised fresh questions about the future of another figure involved in the Army leaker’s case: Julian Assange.
WikiLeaks had earlier pledged, via a tweet, that its founder would agree to US extradition if Obama granted clemency to Manning.
Holed up for more than four years at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Assange has refused to meet prosecutors in Sweden, where he’s wanted on a rape allegation, fearing he would be extradited to the US to face espionage charges if he leaves the embassy.
Assange: "Thank you to everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning's clemency. Your courage & determination made the impossible possible."— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 17, 2017
But the Justice Department has never announced any indictment of Assange.
WikiLeaks lawyer Melinda Taylor said US and British authorities refuse to say whether the US has requested extradition.
Though she praised the commutation for Manning, Taylor made no mention of Assange’s earlier promise to agree to extradition.
White House officials said neither Assange’s fate nor separate concerns about WikiLeaks’ role in Russian hacking of the election factored into the decision to commute Manning’s sentence.
The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. (with inputs from agencies)