Chelsea Manning, an Army private convicted in 2013 of taking troves of secret diplomatic and military documents and disclosing them to WikiLeaks, has formally asked President Obama to commute her 35-year prison sentence to allow an immediate release and “a first chance at life.”
Manning, 29, has served 6 ½ years in federal custody — longer than any other person convicted of leaking classified information in U.S. history.
In an impassioned statement accompanying her petition for clemency, she accepted “full and complete responsibility” for her decision to disclose the material. She said she pleaded guilty without the benefit of a plea agreement because she believed the military justice system would understand her motivation for the leak and sentence her fairly.
“I was wrong,” wrote Manning, who is imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
She said the 35-year penalty was “far more” than she imagined possible — “unreasonable, outrageous and out of line with what I had done.”
Her reason for passing the documents to WikiLeaks was to raise public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent civilians, her attorney, Vincent J. Ward, said in a letter accompanying Manning’s petition.
Ward said that Manning’s sentence exceeds even international legal norms. Obama, whom he said has taken “admirable steps” to provide criminal offenders a second chance through clemency, “has the opportunity to right this wrong” by commuting Manning’s sentence to time served. That, he said, would give her “a first chance to live a real, meaningful life.”
This is Manning’s second clemency request. In 2013, a few weeks after her sentencing, she sought a pardon from Obama. “It was too soon, and the requested relief too much,” Manning wrote in her statement. “I should have waited.” She said the past three years have enabled her to reflect on her actions, her treatment and on her struggle to adjust to the military as a transgender person.
The Army kept her in solitary confinement for almost a year before formal charges were brought. “It was a humiliating and degrading experience,” she said. The treatment was called “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.
Manning, who formerly went by the name Bradley Manning, said she failed “to meet the expectations of being a male” in the Army and “just did not fit in anywhere.” Today, she said, she is a far different person.
“I am not Bradley Manning,” she said. “I really never was. I am Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who, through this application, is respectfully requesting a first chance at life.”
Her petition was supported by Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War; Morris Davis, a former military commission prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay; and Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and legal commentator.
There is precedent for a pardon, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. Samuel L. Morison, a Navy intelligence analyst convicted in 1985 of leaking spy satellite photos to Jane’s Defence Weekly, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001, he noted. Morison served eight months of a two-year prison term.
President-elect Donald Trump, Aftergood said, has taken a dim view of the media, and his campaign rhetoric suggests he would take an aggressive, law-and-order approach to criminal justice. On the other hand, he said, he spoke approvingly of WikiLeaks as the platform that posted emails hacked from the private email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.
“So he seems to find leaks perfectly acceptable when they serve his interests, less so when they don’t,” Aftergood said.
In September, legal commentators Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey wrote in the legal affairs blog Lawfare that Obama ought to consider clemency for Manning. Unlike the case of Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor who leaked agency secrets to the media, they wrote, Manning faced the consequences of her actions by standing trial. Snowden has been living under a grant of asylum in Moscow and said he does not believe he could get a fair trial in the United States. Hennessey, a former National Security Agency lawyer, and Wittes also said that they believe Manning’s 35-year sentence is “excessive and disproportionate.”