Obama commutes prison sentence for Chelsea Manning

Washington, Jan 18 (IANS) Outgoing President Barack Obama has commuted the majority of the remaining prison sentence of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to WikiLeaks.

The President on Tuesday took the decision to free the transgender US Army soldier on May 17 after overruling the objections of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

Manning had been sentenced to 35 years in military prison in 2013 for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks.

The decision by Obama rescued 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 New York Times reported.

The President also pardoned James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who pleaded guilty in October last year to the charge of making false statements to federal investigators in 2012.

Cartwright was questioned about leaking top secret information on US efforts to cripple Iran’s nuclear programme to two journalists.

Cartwright, 67, served 40 years in the US Marine Corps and was widely regarded within the military for his technical acumen and work in the areas of nuclear proliferation, missile defence and cybersecurity.

A former intelligence official termed the decision to commute Manning’s sentence as shocking. He said the move was “deeply hypocritical given Obama’s denunciation of WikiLeaks’ role in the hacking of the (Democratic National Committee)”.

The material, which the former soldier leaked and WikiLeaks published in 2010, included a classified video of a US helicopter attacking civilians and journalists in Iraq in 2007.

The video titled “Collateral Murder” depicts a 2007 air strike in Baghdad during which a US helicopter crew fired at and killed innocent journalists. The video has been viewed millions of times and is considered a major turning point in the Iraq War.

When she was initially imprisoned in 2010, Chelsea Manning was still known as Bradley Manning.

Manning also fought for treatment for her gender dysphoria while imprisoned, which includes a sex reassignment surgery — something the military has no experience providing prisoners with.

Though found guilty on 20 out of 22 possible charges (including violating the US Espionage Act), Manning was acquitted of the most serious one — aiding the enemy, which could have earned her a life sentence.

Manning in a hearing apologised for “hurting the US” and said she had mistakenly thought she could “change the world for the better”.

She was also demoted from private first class to private and dishonorably discharged.

Nancy Hollander, an attorney for Manning, told CNN the former soldier has been “nervous the last few days”. She learned of the commutation around the time Obama made the announcement.

“She knows she’s going to be free,” Hollander said.

Asked to describe the difference between the situations of Manning and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia after leaking state secrets, a source in the White House said there was a “fundamental difference”.

Snowden on Tuesday tweeted his support, urging her to “stay strong a while longer”.

President-elect Donald Trump did not immediately comment on the matter, but when asked about WikiLeaks in the wake of the releases in 2010, he had said: “I think it’s disgraceful. I think there should be like death penalty or something.”

Human rights activists and lawyers for Manning celebrated the decision.

Chase Strangio, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Manning, said he was “relieved and thankful”.

“Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result, her own human rights have been violated by the US government for years,” Margaret Huang, the group’s executive director, said.

Republican members of Congress, however, expressed outrage.

“This was grave harm to our national security,” Senator Tom Cotton, Representative from Arkansas, told CNN.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, denouncing Manning’s “treachery”, said she “put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets”.

Republican Senator John McCain said the President’s decision was “a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage”.

Obama has commuted 1,385 sentences and issued 212 pardons, more than the total granted by the past 12 presidents combined, the BBC reported.

A presidential commutation reduces the sentence being served but does not change the fact of conviction, whereas a pardon forgives a certain criminal offence.