Politics & National Security

Obama is Right on Chelsea Manning

By Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey
Tuesday, January 17, 2017, 5:32 PM

By the time you read this, a firestorm may—or may not—be breaking out over President Obama’s decision to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence. We’re not sure what the reaction is likely to be, to be honest. Predictably many of Manning’s supporters are jubilant. Senate Republicans have already condemned the decision, though President Trump and certain conservatives have recently converted to the Wikileaks cause.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s our reaction: President Obama was right to reduce Manning’s sentence. And given the extent to which last-minute presidential clemency actions often gin up mini-scandals, he acted courageously as well.

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We first wrote in support of commuting Manning’s sentence back in September. The issue had not been much discussed and our position was met with a degree of surprise, if not consternation, in some circles. There were members of the national security community who viewed our position as somehow disconsonant with our broader tendency to support more, rather than less, robust security policies and laws. A different part of the ideological spectrum criticized us for arguing for Manning’s clemency in the context of arguing against a pardon for Edward Snowden.

We think both of those lines of criticism miss a few important distinctions, the most central of which is that national security is about real security, not simply vengeance. Moreover, Manning’s case is not like Snowden’s. And critically, Manning did not get a pardon. The distinction between a pardon (which voids the underlying conviction) and a commutation (which merely lessens the punishment) is important here.

As we argued then:

There is, ironically, a controversial leaker case in which executive clemency is worth considering, but it isn’t Snowden’s case. It’s the case of Chelsea Manning. Manning, unlike Snowden, faced the consequences of her actions. She faced trial. She allowed the facts to come out about what she did—which has allowed a serious assessment of the relative good and bad of the disclosures. She also was, at least in part, responding to a genuinely horrifying killing by US troops in Iraq. Manning’s case also presents mitigating circumstances related to mental health in a vulnerable personal period. Critically, she also received a sentence of 35 years in prison that many people—including the two of us—regard as excessive and disproportionate.

If there is a case in which to exercise executive prerogative to heal a rift regarding the treatment of self-proclaimed whistleblowers, Manning’s is infinitely more deserving than Snowden. We do not argue that Obama should consider a pardon: Manning committed serious and consequential crimes and was properly convicted. But the President should consider commuting the sentence either to time served or to some reasonable period of additional years. Manning has been imprisoned for more than six years; she could be eligible for parole in the next several years with good behavior. She clearly presents no ongoing security risk and it’s hard to imagine how her circumstances would inspire others in the military to believe they can disclose classified information without consequence.

And from a pragmatic standpoint, the Manning case continues to generate divisive headlines which highlight the current inability of the US military to facilitate compassionate and humane in-service transition for transgender people. As the military struggles to modernize its policies, it would be well-served to not have the most high-profile example be in the highly-complex context of detention. All things considered, Manning has a potentially serious case for mercy and the President should at least consider commuting her sentence.

To be clear, we are not in any way defending what Manning did. We, unlike President-elect Trump, are not fans of Wikileaks and its campaign to publish as many of America’s secrets as it can. We do not think Manning was justified in her decisions. We believe her actions did more harm than good. And we certainly are not advocates of indiscriminate disclosure outside of lawful authority of mass quantities of classified information—by anyone.

But the story of Chelsea Manning is more complicated than the crime she committed, as Alex Gibney’s first-rate documentary We Steal Secrets vividly portrays. The power of clemency was designed to empower the President to make precisely the fine moral distinctions that say that one should not forgive Manning’s crime but that she should not serve the full term of a horrifically long sentence. We have watched this case for years, through the lens of national security, but at the end of the day, we think her sentence should be commuted for many of the same reasons that drive Gibney’s evident sympathy with her in the film: This is one of those cases where justice requires course correction.

President Obama apparently agrees, and he deserves credit for taking what may be a political risk in his last week in office to translate that instinct into a reality.