On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the soldier sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to providing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning, who has spent seven years in military prison, will now be released in May of this year.
Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to grant various forms of clemency to individuals convicted of crimes. While the number of pardons granted by Obama has been called “abysmally low,” he has issued a historically high number of commutations. The bulk of Obama’s commutations were granted to drug offenders who would not have received such lengthy sentences under current law, due to bipartisan sentencing reforms.
Commuting an offender’s sentence doesn’t imply that he or she wasn’t culpable, but that he or she has been sufficiently punished. And whether you think what Chelsea Manning did was heroic or harmful, there’s plenty of reason to believe she’s suffered enough.
Prior to her conviction, Manning was subjected to solitary confinement and other treatment that legal scholars explained violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition of punishment without a trial. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture found that Manning’s treatment constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in violation of the Convention Against Torture. The judge who ultimately sentenced Manning agreed she had received excessive treatment, but only reduced her sentence by 112 days.
After her conviction, Manning, who is a transgender woman, struggled psychologically in an all-male military prison and attempted suicide on multiple occasions. For years, she was denied medical treatment and accommodations recommended by doctors treating her gender dysphoria. And there was reason to fear new mistreatment under a Trump administration that has suggested it will reverse recent reforms protecting transgender people in the military.
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White House officials stressed that Manning took responsibility for her actions and received an excessive sentence. To be sure, the size of the trove of documents she leaked was unprecedented, but 35 years is still wildly disproportionate to the one- to two-year sentences typically handed down. Even with an uptick in leak prosecutions during the Obama years, leakers seldom face criminal prosecution at all.
Obama made another notable clemency grant on Tuesday, pardoning General James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his role in confirming U.S. involvement in the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program to the press. Taken together, these clemency grants represent a much-needed return to a long tradition in the U.S. of not fully enforcing our overbroad laws against those who leak classified information. We don’t throw the book at them because we recognize that leaks can be essential for keeping the government accountable. As we enter a Trump era likely to be characterized by lawlessness and lack of transparency, it’s imperative that those in government expect they’ll be treated fairly if they have to break the law to blow the whistle.