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Opinion Obama’s grave misstep: Commuting Manning’s sentence

President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

President Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of former Army private Chelsea Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents during wartime that revealed sources and methods of intelligence and damaged America’s standing with numerous allies defies rational explanation. The Post reports:

Manning, 29, has served nearly seven years in federal custody. Manning transmitted the first documents to WikiLeaks in February 2010, sending what came to be known as the Iraq and Afghanistan “War Logs.” She continued to transmit more material, including a video that showed a U.S. Apache helicopter in Baghdad opening fire on a group of individuals that the crew believed to be insurgents. Among the dead were Iraqi children and two journalists. She also leaked documents pertaining to Guantanamo Bay prisoners as well as 250,000 State Department cables.

Compassion for Manning whose sentence her attorneys claimed was unprecedented (as was the leak she engineered), who attempted to commit suicide twice and has been held in solitary for long periods of time, does not require commutation, especially after seven years. (Obama had the power, for example, to commute the sentence to 10 or 15 years.) An administration that understandably went ballistic when the leaks first occurred and has prosecuted more leaking cases than all his predecessors combined, looks feckless, to put it mildly.

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At a time when we are battling cyberattacks and combating the notion that WikiLeaks is a respected news organization setting Manning free seems to convey exactly the wrong message to our enemies and to potential leakers at the wrong time. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reportedly opposed the move, for obvious reasons. It may be that the entire intelligence community did as well. Despite weeks of acrimonious charges back and forth between the intelligence community and President-elect Donald Trump, Obama’s action — which Trump almost certainly will deplore — might actually help patch things up.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was furious. “When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks,” he said in a written statement. “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.” He later told Jake Tapper on CNN, “Well, hundreds of thousands of pages of highly classified information were disclosed and there’s no doubt that it caused grave harm to our national security. And it’s important that we have a deterrent effect by stiff penalties when a Private in the United States army takes actions that no one in the military should take – certainly junior enlisted personnel.” Cotton stressed, “Again, Chelsea Manning’s sentence would have been coming up for review and possible parole in the future. I wish Barack Obama would have allowed the military justice system to proceed in due course rather than short-circuiting the sentence 28 years before it was set to expire.” 

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was likewise apoplectic. “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.” Likewise, Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, put out a statement: “Inmate Manning was convicted of multiple acts of espionage against the United States and other serious military misconduct,” he said. “These actions potentially put our country and fellow soldiers at serious risk. The president’s commutation of Manning’s sentence sends a terrible message to the world that the penalties for damaging our security can be swayed by politics.”

Democrats didn’t exactly circle the wagons around the president. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who serves on the intelligence committee, denounced the move in an interview Tuesday afternoon on MSNBC. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) declared he had “serious concerns,” citing the security risks. “I don’t know what kind of message we are sending,” he said in regard to the Russian-WikiLeaks connection.

Just as the genocide in Syria, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the decline in military preparedness, the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations, the premature decision to pull all troops out of Iraq and the spread of the Islamic State on his watch will be part of his legacy, so too will the Manning commutation. History, we suspect, will not look kindly on any of it.