Politics & National Security

Obama Should Commute Chelsea Manning’s Sentence

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, January 11, 2017, 10:54 AM

This morning, NBC News reported that Chelsea Manning is on the short list for a possible commutation from President Obama. Back in September—with much attention focused on a Pardon Snowden campaign—we advocated he consider commuting Manning’s sentence. At the time, we wrote:

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.

Commuting Manning’s sentence in no way condones her actions, which had serious harmful consequences. For that reason, we do not—and would not—support a pardon. But a complete understanding of the events suggests that the interests of justice and security are not served by Manning spending additional time in custody. President Obama commuting her sentence would not be an act of approval, but one of forgiveness.