It was widely considered possible that before leaving office, Obama would commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army soldier convicted of turning hundreds of thousands of classified documents over to WikiLeaks in 2010.
And Obama has indeed done that today. The New York Times can barely contain its glee.
The decision by Mr. Obama rescued Ms. Manning, who twice tried to kill herself last year, from an uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at the men’s military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She has been jailed for nearly seven years, and her 35-year sentence was by far the longest punishment ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction.
The act of clemency could be seen as a reversal, at least in part, of the Obama administration’s unprecedented criminal crackdown on leaking: The administration has brought charges in about nine cases, about twice as many as under all previous presidents combined.
Manning was Bradley Manning at the time of the document dump to WikiLeaks, but decided in the years since that he was actually a woman. Manning is scheduled to receive gender transition surgery, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, in April 2017.
Conveniently, the commutation-release date set by Obama is 17 May 2017. This will presumably be after the surgery date and recuperation period, ensuring that the taxpayers whose trust Manning violated will have to pay for his surgery.
Manning’s supporters made much of the fact that the military could not swear, during sentencing hearings in 2013, that Manning’s leaks had caused deaths by what they revealed about U.S. operations, and cooperating locals in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the Taliban thanked Manning and WikiLeaks in 2010 for “revealing spies,” and put a bounty on the heads of at least 70 people based on information culled from the Manning documents. The U.S. State Department testified to a similar effect in 2013, stating that Manning’s leaks had imperiled human rights work across the board in the war-torn countries.
Reportedly, White House spokesman Josh Earnest downplayed any chance that Obama would show clemency to Manning’s fellow leaker Edward Snowden. Earnest characterized the damage done by Snowden as “far more serious and far more dangerous.”
Certainly, Snowden fled to Russia and has been there for several years, remaining outside the reach of U.S. authorities. Few presidents would be inclined to show him clemency.
But few would be inclined to show clemency to Manning either. The thought intrudes that Obama is playing to his base by commuting Manning’s sentence because he suffers from gender dysphoria.