Washington: President Barack Obama granted clemency to Chelsea Manning on Tuesday, allowing the transgender army intelligence officer convicted of leaking more than 700,000 US documents to go free nearly three decades early.
Embracing his clemency powers days before leaving office, Obama also pardoned 64 individuals including retired General James Cartwright, charged with making false statements during another leak probe. Manning was one of 209 inmates with sentences commuted by Obama, who has now granted more commutations than any other president in history.
Neil Eggleston, Obama’s White House counsel, 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.”
Manning, Cartwright and Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera were the more prominent names on a list otherwise made up mostly of nonviolent 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 has been serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks, along with some battlefield video. She was convicted in military court of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses and spent more than six years behind bars. She asked Obama last November to commute her sentence to time served.
Her case has pitted LGBT rights activists, who 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. The former cheered Obama’s move, while the latter called it an outrageous act that set a dangerous precedent.
Yet Obama did not grant a pardon to another prominent leaker, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whom the US has been unable to extradite from Russia. Snowden hasn’t formally applied for clemency, though his supporters have called for it. Yet the White House drew a distinction between the unapologetic Snowden and Manning, whom officials noted has expressed remorse and served several years already for her crime.
Known as Bradley Manning at the time of her 2010 arrest, Manning came out as transgender after being sentenced. She was held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she attempted suicide twice last year, according to her lawyers. Manning has acknowledged leaking the documents, but has said she did it to raise public awareness about the effects of war on civilians.
“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.”
But House Speaker Paul Ryan called the move “just outrageous,” and added, “Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets.”
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 Thursday – his last full day in office – but said those would focus on drug offenders and would not likely include any other famous names.
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 US 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.
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 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.
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.
Background to Manning’s case
Here’s a look at the key elements of Manning;s case:
What was Manning convicted of?
A judge convicted Manning on July 30, 2013, of 20 counts, including six Espionage Act violations, theft and computer fraud. She was sentenced to 35 years out of a possible maximum of 90. She was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, which carries a possible life sentence.
What did Manning do?
The now 29-year-old native of Crescent, Oklahoma, leaked more than 700,000 classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and diplomatic cables in 2010 while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad. Manning also leaked a 2007 video clip of a US helicopter crew killing at least nine men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver. The Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately, having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons.
What harm did the prosecutors’ evidence show?
Government witnesses testified the leaks endangered people who were named as information sources, prompting the State Department to help some of them move, even to other countries, for their safety. Several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.
Prosecutors showed that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula used material from the Apache helicopter attack in a propaganda video. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden obtained and presumably read some of the leaked documents, the evidence showed.
What were the defence’s principal arguments?
The defense produced evidence that the Army disregarded Manning’s emotional turmoil over her gender identity and isolation in a military that barred homosexuals from serving openly. The day after she was sentenced, Manning announced in a statement that she was a woman named Chelsea and demanded hormone therapy, which the Army eventually approved.
Why did she do it?
Manning said she leaked the material to expose the US military’s “bloodlust” and disregard for human life, and what she considered American diplomatic duplicity. She said she chose information she believed would not harm the US. After her conviction, she apologised for unintentionally causing harm, but not for revealing US secrets.
What is the status of any appeal?
Manning’s lawyers filed an appeal of the court-martial findings in May to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Court Clerk Malcom H. Squires Jr. said Tuesday he didn’t know how the commutation of Manning’s sentence could affect the appeals process. Further appeals can be made to the military’s highest court, the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the US Supreme Court.