President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning on Tuesday, allowing the convicted Army leaker to go free nearly three decades early as part of a sweeping move to offer clemency in the final days of his administration. The White House says Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama is shortening.
Manning, who will leave prison in May, was one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama was shortening, a list that includes Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez-Rivera. Obama also pardoned 64 people, including retired Gen. James Cartwright, who was charged with making false statements during a probe into disclosure of classified information.
“These 273 individuals learned that our nation is a forgiving nation,” said White House counsel Neil Eggleston, “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, a former Army intelligence analyst, has been serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified government and military documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. She asked Obama last November to commute her sentence to time served.
Manning has spent more than six years behind bars. She was convicted in military court in 2013 of six violations of the Espionage Act and 14 other offenses for leaking more than 700,000 documents and some battlefield video to WikiLeaks.
Manning, a transgender woman, was known as Bradley Manning at the time of her 2010 arrest and is being held at the all-male military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Manning was an intelligence analyst in Iraq and has acknowledged leaking the documents, but has said it was done to raise public awareness about the effects of war on civilians.
She attempted suicide twice last year, according to her lawyers, citing her treatment at Leavenworth.
Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Manning, said the president’s action “quite literally save Chelsea’s life.”
“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,” Stangio said in a statement.
The U.S. Army declined to comment.
Some lawmakers were not happy with Obama’s decision to cut short her sentence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement, “This is just outrageous. Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.”
“We ought not to treat a traitor like a martyr,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told CNN.
Manning accepted “full and complete responsibility” for her decision to disclose the material in a statement accompanying her petition for clemency, The Washington Post reported.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that Manning’s crimes and those of Edward Snowden are very different.
“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. 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,” Earnest said Friday, before Obama’s decision was made public.
“So I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different. ... But I know that there’s a temptation because the crimes were relatively similar to lump the two cases together. But there are some important differences, including the scale of the crimes that were committed and the consequences of their crimes.
“Obviously, as Chelsea Manning has acknowledged, and as we have said many times, that the release of the information that she provided to WikiLeaks was damaging to national security. But the disclosures by Edward Snowden were far more serious and far more dangerous.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange released a statement about the commutation.
“Ms. Manning is a hero, whose bravery should be applauded,” Assange said in the statement. “Journalists, publishers, and their sources serve the public interest and promote democracy by distributing authentic information on key matters such as human rights abuses and illegal acts by government officials. They should not be prosecuted.”
Assange went on to demand that the U.S. government “should immediately end its war on whistleblowers and publishers, such as WikiLeaks and myself,” but he made no mention of a pledge that he made on Twitter five days ago in which he appeared to offer himself up to U.S. authorities in return for Manning’s freedom.
The pledge, posted to Twitter on Jan. 12 at 2:40 p.m. EST, said: “If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case”
Assange lawyer Melinda Taylor suggested that he wouldn’t go back on his word. “Everything that he has said he’s standing by,” she said in a brief telephone conversation with The Associated Press.
Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a pardon, the White House said. He 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 U.S. government are entrusted each day with sensitive classified information.
“They must understand that disclosing such information to persons not authorized to receive it has severe consequences,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed this month.
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.
Most of the other people receiving commutations were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Obama has commuted sentences for 1,385 individuals, the most of any President in U.S. history. That number includes 504 life sentences.