Outgoing President Barack Obama, in an eleventh-hour move, commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). The action has outraged many, especially a majority of Republicans, who viewed the conviction as justified for treasonous, harmful crimes. They fear it has set a dangerous precedent that may embolden others to leak secret information with impunity, without worry of dire consequences.
Open for discussion is whether this is a meaningful victory for free-speech advocates. Or is it a case of too little, too late - nothing more than a petulant parting shot by a president who senses his legacy is about to be greatly diminished by the incoming Trump administration? Meanwhile those who are championing a pardon for Edward Snowden are left deflated, as this may lessen his chances.
Not helping their cause is that while Manning has expressed remorse, Snowden remains unapologetic. Also, Manning has served nearly seven years behind bars, while Snowden, in exile, has thus far evaded prosecution. And, in fact, has just been granted three more years' asylum.
Advocates for Manning’s commutation (she was not pardoned, which would restore many of her rights) point to her many suicide attempts while imprisoned, and her contriteness, as strong reasons to explain the President’s motive. As expected, her advocates were thrilled at the decision.
"We are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman," said Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Manning. Some have even questioned whether she would have ever been considered for clemency if she had remained Bradley - a male.
Others view the President's action as an attempt to reverse nearly a decade of repressive White House privacy policies with the simple stroke of a pen. The White House has often been at odds with privacy/free speech factions in recent years. Such commutations are especially golden, because the actions are permanent, and cannot be undone by incoming President Donald Trump.
While pundits can posit whether or not Snowden's revelations put security and lives at risk, there is no such conjecture regarding Manning. She committed crimes. The case was a slam-dunk. She leaked classified government and military documents to WikiLeaks, along with actual battlefield video footage. This was in clear violation of the Espionage Act. And, unlike Snowden, she was convicted of her crimes.
Severely criticizing the outgoing President, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, "Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets." Those words might give one pause to recall similar rhetoric swirling after Snowden’s exposé. Except in Snowden’s case, it was just supposition, and also he had many people in his corner.
Manning’s deeds were not debatable, and were adjudicated in that criminal context. The chorus of voices in support of her only grew in earnest after her suicide attempts, which we’re told were made to draw attention to her plight as an incarcerated transgender individual.
Now that this irrevocable decision has been made, attention turns to another actor in the army leakers' drama - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange had tweeted that he would agree to extradition if Manning's sentence was commuted. As of this writing, his extradition status remains unchanged and unclear.
While it is possible that Manning was granted clemency only to try to catch the bigger fish, Assange, that is not a likely reason. More credible is that it is just another attempt by Obama to do at the last minute what he couldn’t do while in office for eight years. Eight years which saw privacy, press freedoms and freedom of speech suffer repeated blows.
Editors note: as always, Stan's views are entirely his own, and should not be seen as reflecting those of other ProPrivacy.com staff members.