WASHINGTON — President Obama commuted the sentences of 209 people along with issuing 64 pardons — ensuring that Chelsea Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan defense documents to WikiLeaks, will go free in May.
Manning, who went by Bradley Manning at the time, was arrested in May 2010 and sentenced to 35 years in prison at a 2013 court martial.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said “we ought not treat a traitor like a martyr.”
“When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks,” Cotton said. “I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told CNN that Obama’s action was surprising and sent a dangerous message of clemency to those who would endanger national security.
“I’d like to hear why it is that he took this step,” Menendez said. “There are very serious consequences when you release the kind of documents she did… at the end of the day, there was enormous damage done.”
“You cannot ultimately put the United States at risk because of your individual actions… there have to be serious consequences.”
The announcement came after press secretary Josh Earnest held the administration’s final briefing today. Obama is scheduled to hold his final press conference on Wednesday.
Activists who lobbied for the commutation or a pardon claimed that Manning had been mistreated in custody and that the information leaked served the public interest instead of compromising national security.
The American Civil Liberties Union also said Manning’s gender dysphoria was a critical factor, with ACLU LGBT & HIV Project staff attorney Chase Strangio noting last week that Manning has attempted suicide twice in the last six months and “has faced the perpetual indignity of being subjected to male grooming and hair standards and held in an all-male facility as a woman.” Strangio added that Manning’s “prospects for surviving another year are grim.”
In a clemency application, Manning wrote, “I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose those materials to the public. I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”
Amnesty International also rallied its members to pressure the Obama administration to free Manning, saying “she was oversentenced as an example to others, and has already served time for her actions.”
“It is critical that President Obama grant Chelsea Manning’s application in recognition of her acting in the public interest, for the treatment she endured in her early pre-trial detention, for due process shortcomings during her trial and to mitigate the chilling effect on future potential whistleblowers,” Amnesty said.
Wikileaks tweeted “VICTORY” in spreading news of the commutation.
“Chelsea Manning is probably the most empathetic person I’ve ever met. So thrilled!! Can’t wait to see what she does,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, who reported on the Edward Snowden leaks and wrote a commutation letter in support of Manning.
Earnest told reporters today that Snowden, who is on the run and being sheltered by Russia, did not apply for clemency.
“Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the serious crimes that with which he’s been charged. He will of course be afforded the kind of due process that’s available to every American citizen who’s going through the criminal justice process. But the crimes that he’s accused of committing are serious,” Earnest said. “And we believe that he should return to the United States and face them rather than seeking refuge in the arms of an adversary of the United States that has their own strategic interests in disseminating harmful — or disseminating information in a harmful way.”
Obama also pardoned the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty in October to making false statements to federal investigators in a leak investigation regarding the Stuxnet virus used against the Iranian nuclear program.
And he commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, 74, who was serving a 70-year sentence for seditious conspiracy as well as conspiracy to escape, to transport explosives with intent to kill and injure people, and to destroy government buildings and property, and other charges. He was a leader of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, a Marxist militia that committed dozens of domestic terror attacks in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said he was “overjoyed” at the commutation and called Lopez Rivera a “mentor.”
“The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us,” Gutierrez said. “…He is a national hero no less significant than Roberto Clemente or any leader we have ever had. It will be a blessed day when I can walk and talk with my friend in the fresh air, far from prison walls, and I am so looking forward to that day.”