With barely 72 hours left in office, President Barack Obama Tuesday did an abrupt U-turn on his years-long assault on government leaks and showed leniency toward two military figures who’d helped make public highly sensitive secrets.
Both Democrats and Republicans said they were bewildered – even angered – by Obama’s commutation of the 35-year prison term of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence specialist who turned over some 700,000 classified and sensitive diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
Obama also pardoned retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators when he denied that he revealed to the New York Times the existence of a highly classified campaign to cripple Iran’s nuclear program with a computer worm. The Stuxnet virus crippled Iran’s delicate nuclear equipment and was the first major use in history of a digital weapon.
For most of his two terms in office, Obama relentlessly sought to prosecute those who spilled government secrets, trying to deter others from following suit. Republican and Democratic critics said Tuesday’s commutation rendered that effort worthless.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the commutation of Manning’s sentence “ a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline.”
Manning’s “dishonor will last forever,” McCain said.
The White House said Obama would issue new pardons and commutations Thursday, raising questions about the future of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, an Australian national who has been in refuge at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012 fighting extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations.
WikiLeaks last week posted a tweet saying Assange, who for years has voiced fears that Sweden would turn him over to stand trial in U.S. courts, would “agree to US extradition” if Obama offered clemency to Manning.
Whether Obama would issue a pardon without a conviction was uncertain, as was how it would be viewed by Republicans, who’ve developed a new-found appreciation for the Australian after his publication of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign team undercut Clinton’s campaign.
“Cue hypocritical outrage from Republicans who have defended Assange role in election-related hacks,” tweeted Brian Fallon, Clinton’s former press secretary.
“This is just outrageous,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said in a statement. “Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets.”
The actions on behalf of Manning and Cartwright were included in a list of 273 pardons and commutations issued Tuesday by the White House. Manning, who has served barely seven years of her 35-year jail term, will now be freed from her cell at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on May 17.
Last-minute pardons have raised controversy for other presidents, most notably for President Bill Clinton, who on his final day in office pardoned Marc Rich, a fugitive on tax fraud who owed the U.S. government $48 million.
But there was a special feeling to Obama’s unexpected action on Manning’s behalf.
Washington is wracked by a sense of intrigue that perhaps goes beyond even the consternation that greeted the 2010 publication by WikiLeaks of video and documents Manning copied to a CD from a classified computer system while on duty in Iraq. The national intelligence agencies are feuding with President-elect Donald Trump over the possible role of Russia in the election just past, an unverified dossier compiled by a former British spy is circulating, alleging that Russia has compromising video of Trump, and the nation’s political establishment is angrily debating whether Trump’s soft talk toward Russian President Vladimir Putin is a threat to national security.
That made Obama’s abrupt move to free Manning, a 29-year-old Army private from Oklahoma, seem like an especially sharp slap to the nation’s system of classifying secrets.
Until Tuesday, Obama had defied appeals from advocacy groups, including Amnesty International, to release Manning, who originally was known as Bradley but has been undergoing a gender transformation since she was arrested. She was convicted of multiple counts under the Espionage Act, and given the 35-year term on Aug. 21, 2013. She is serving her term in an all-male prison.
Manning’s leak arguably changed the course of history. Once secret State Department cables on Tunisia’s corrupt government helped ignite the Arab Spring movement, bringing dramatic and violent upheaval to six nations, at least three of which are still plunged in turmoil.
Tens of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that pulled back the veil on U.S. policies normally drawn up in private and, in some cases, showed covert support for authoritarian rulers favorable to U.S. interests.
Obama’s actions also raise questions about the future of Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency whose unauthorized revelations in 2013 showed vast surveillance by the U.S. intelligence apparatus, some of it on trusted leaders of allied nations. Snowden’s leaks also underscored how the NSA swept up telephone records within the United States in apparent violation of U.S. law. Snowden is in asylum in Moscow.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted recently the “stark differences” between Manning and Snowden, whose supporters who have been pushing for clemency.
“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,” Earnest said. “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.”
“So I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different. I can’t speculate at this point about to what degree that will have an impact on the President’s consideration of clemency requests. 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.”
Earnest said the “disclosures by Edward Snowden were far more serious and far more dangerous” than those of Manning.
Supporters hailed the commutation as an act of humanity.
“Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary health care. This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life,” said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project representing Manning.
But politicians of both political party were united in their denunciations. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the commutation was “not sending the right message.”
“I’m really surprised the president took this step,” Menendez told CNN. “There are very serious consequences when you release the kind of documents as she did. … We have operatives in the field. We have interests in terms of our advocacy in countries abroad.”
A Republican counterpart, Sen. Tom Cotton, who sits on the Armed Services Committee and as an Army officer served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, voiced anger.
“When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Pvt. Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks,” Cotton said.
“I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies. We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr.”
Mark Seibel contributed to this report.