The commutation of Chelsea Manning’s prison term will forever be a blot on President Obama’s legacy. Just as the pardon granted Marc Rich by President Clinton on his last day in office became a totem of the odious pay-to-play money grubbing of Bill and Hillary, l’affaire Manning will be an enduring reminder of Obama’s constant pandering to special voter groups and mindless adherence to a progressive agenda.
It will also stand as testimony to President Obama’s questionable fealty to America’s security and the rule of law.
It was, and will prove to be, a terrible decision.
Private Bradley Manning was court-martialed in 2013 and found guilty of leaking 700,000 documents, the largest dump of military secrets in our history and the first case involving large-scale publishing of classified information via WikiLeaks.
In announcing the “guilty” verdicts on 17 of 22 charges brought against him and on an amended 4 others, the judge in the case agreed that Manning had released Afghan and Iraq war logs, embassy cables and Guantanamo files “with reason to believe such information could be used to the injury of the U.S…” She let Manning off on the most serious charge – that of “aiding the enemy”, which at the time meant Al Qaeda. If convicted of that offense, Manning could have been sentenced to death under the Espionage Act.
Instead, with Manning’s defense team arguing that confusion over his sexuality had caused him to be in a fragile state, he received a sentence of 35 years. The maximum sentence would have been 90 years; the prosecutor had asked for 60. With time off for good behavior, Manning could have been paroled as early as 2021. When released in May she will have served seven years.
Given the furor over WikiLeak’s intrusion into the presidential election last year, the uproar over Hillary Clinton’s careless handling of classified information and the uncertain fate of Edward Snowden, also accused of making public reams of classified information, the commutation of Manning’s sentence was swiftly slammed by both Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday night.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan described the act as “outrageous” while Democratic Senator Robert Menendez expressed puzzlement as to why Obama would have acted, saying “national security is at stake.” Most concerning, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposed the move.
As well he should have. In this era of internet access, our state secrets are more vulnerable than ever before.
The Manning releases, including more than 470,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports, have been described as putting U.S. troops and many individuals working with our armed forces at risk. The Afghan war logs contained the names of 900 Afghanis who had worked with U.S. soldiers; though it has never been proved that any of those individuals died as a result of Manning’s perfidy, anecdotal tales of Taliban recriminations suggest otherwise. At the least, the release of the names impeded our vital efforts to work with and gain the trust of locals.
In addition, Manning leaked some 250,000 diplomatic cables, which reportedly damaged our communications channels with allies, according to Patrick Kennedy, a senior State Department official who testified against Manning.
Manning will not be the last disgruntled soldier in a position to leak important documents. Edward Snowden, while not a soldier, of course, followed in her footsteps and more will follow.
To release Manning now sets a dangerous precedent and suggests that guarding state secrets is no longer mandatory or a high priority. Coming after the decision by the Department of Justice not to indict Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information in an “extremely careless” fashion, it may undermine the ability to prosecute future cases against people who leak documents important to our national security.
Presidential pardons and the commutation of sentences are meant to give criminals a second chance – to acknowledge that a person has been adequately punished for his crime, and that he or she is repentant.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, Obama wanted to show that the U.S. is a "forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance," according to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston. It is unclear just what hard work Manning has performed or what evidence there is of that rehabilitation.
Obama also recently pardoned Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright who was vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until his retirement in 2011. Cartwright had been convicted of lying to the FBI about giving a reporter classified information about Stuxnet, a cyber-warfare operation that targeted Iran's nuclear reactors. Unlike Manning, Cartwright has served the country for many years with distinction, which arguably overshadows his transgressions.
Manning has reportedly attempted suicide twice and is in need of sex change surgery. The New York Times has described her situation as "[a] transgender person in a men's military prison...." while sympathy for Manning is appropriate, her difficulties do not seem sufficient rationale for reducing her sentence or for establishing this dangerous precedent. Especially for a White House that the New York Times describes as having “carried out an unprecedented criminal crackdown on leaks of government secrets.”
Manning’s sexual issues do, however, underline the most plausible excuse for Obama’s cutting her sentence short. As Peter Weber wrote in The Week, Obama’s move was a “debt of gratitude to his LGBT supporters.”
Obama heads out the door doing what he does best, slicing and dicing the country into voter blocks. Is it any wonder the country is so divided?