Like all presidents, Barack Obama has the power to commute the sentence of anyone, even an Army private who disclosed 700,000 classified and sensitive military and diplomatic files.
But his explanation for granting clemency to Chelsea Manning wasn’t entirely convincing.
In 2013, Manning was convicted in a military court of six violations of the Espionage Act and 14 other offenses. Obama said Wednesday that Manning’s 35-year sentence – the longest ever for leaking U.S. government information – was disproportionate, and that she has already served a “tough prison sentence,” about seven years when she is released in May.
It’s important to note that it’s a commutation and not a pardon, which would have forgiven the crime. “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served,” Obama said in response to the first question at his final press conference as president.
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Obama’s decision was weighted with several complex factors.
While he denied the commutation sends a message that divulging classified information will go unpunished, some Democrats as well as Republicans argued it could encourage espionage.
President-elect Donald Trump, remarkably, didn’t react right away on Twitter, but Vice President-elect Mike Pence said: “Manning is a traitor and should not have been turned into a martyr.”
Obama has taken a hard line on leakers, but on Tuesday he also pardoned retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to lying during an investigation into a leak on the campaign to cripple Iran’s nuclear program with a computer virus.
Critics say that Manning’s leak put people at risk and damaged our national security. It created a global diplomatic crisis, helped spark unrest in several nations and might have helped ignite the Arab Spring.
However, the leak also revealed a clearer, uglier picture of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a widely viewed video of a 2007 helicopter assault in Baghdad in which civilians were killed, including two journalists.
Also, though Obama didn’t mention it, Manning, 29, presented a special case because she has been changing her gender since her arrest in 2010, when she was known as Bradley Manning.
She is struggling with the transition at the all-male military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has been held in solitary confinement for long stretches and twice attempted suicide last year, her lawyers say. Amnesty International and other groups have been lobbying Obama for her release on humanitarian grounds.
Then there’s the intrigue surrounding WikiLeaks, which in 2010 posted the documents taken by Manning. Now, it’s in the spotlight because it posted emails from Democrats during the presidential campaign – which U.S. intelligence agencies say were hacked by Russia to help President-elect Donald Trump.
Last week, WikiLeaks tweeted that founder Julian Assange, who has been hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012, would “agree to U.S. extradition” if Obama gave clemency to Manning.
Assange apparently is backing out; his lawyers said Wednesday that he wanted Manning released immediately and all conditions for extradition hadn’t been met. Obama referred a question on Assange to the Justice Department.
With his Manning decision, Obama joins the club of presidents who issue controversial pardons and commutations as they leave the White House. In his last month in office, George H.W. Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other officials in the Iran-contra scandal. On his last day, Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a fugitive financier and tax evader.
Obama had his reasons for showing mercy to Manning, but he must accept that it might tarnish his legacy.