The Obama administration announced today that the president will commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the soldier who leaked a large cache of secret documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, disrupting international diplomacy, and putting WikiLeaks — and Julian Assange — in the spotlight. The files detailed thousands of military incident logs, including an infamous video of an American helicopter attack that killed two civilian journalists working for Reuters in Iraq.
Manning was convicted of numerous charges relating to the leak, which occurred in 2010, and sentenced to 35 years. She will now be released on May 17 of this year. The former army intelligence officer was known as Bradley Manning at the time of the leak, and subsequently sentenced to a male prison. Following the conviction, she came out as transgender, and pushed for the Department of Defense to provide treatment including gender-reassignment surgery. Manning also tried to commit suicide twice last year.
The decision to commute Manning’s sentence might seem to be at odds with the administration’s refusal to offer a deal to that other famous leaker, Edward Snowden, currently camped out in Russia. But the Obama administration has consistently said that until Snowden undergoes an actual trial, in the U.S., it won’t (and, in fact, can’t) pardon him. Manning, obviously, has — and has served significant time following her trial. Speaking over the weekend, press secretary Josh Earnest explained that 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.” (Snowden’s disclosures also arguably did more damage to national security.)
The commutation comes at an odd political moment, in which the outgoing Democratic administration is more closely aligned with the national-security establishment than the incoming Republican one. Trump infamously benefited from stolen emails published on WikiLeaks, and has praised Assange, and the commutation could be seen — if you’ve got a particularly simplistic idea of the complicated moral and ethical questions at stake — as an endorsement of WikiLeaks. One theory, based on this currently circulating WikiLeaks tweet, might be that commuting Manning’s sentence is the carrot needed to accomplish the long hoped-for extradition of Assange to the United States:
But it seems like a bad idea to base decisions on the word of someone like Julian Assange. Indeed, it’s just as likely that Obama is commuting Manning’s sentence because the harsh conditions under which she’s been imprisoned, including prolonged solitary confinement and 18 months without hormone treatment, outstrip her crime, and because the incoming administration — as friendly as its figurehead has been to WikiLeaks — would likely have worsened those conditions. (Among other things, Trump has promised to review the military’s transgender policy.) Whether you think it’s basic moral decency or some sophisticated 13th-dimensional chess move aimed at rattling Trump or dislodging WikiLeaks, certainly no one in Manning’s camp is going to spend too much time examining Obama’s motivations.