Obama shows his humanity in commuting Chelsea Manning

In 2013, Bradley Edward Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison and dishonorably discharged from the Army after leaking 700,000 secret documents to Wikileaks.

The day after sentencing, which followed years of counseling for gender dysphoria, Manning announced that she was female and would like to be known as Chelsea.

Yesterday, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles If Republicans rebuked Steve King, they must challenge Donald Trump ‘Family Guy’ says it will stop making jokes about gay people MORE commuted Chelsea Elizabeth Manning’s sentence to seven years, which would schedule her for release on May 17, 2017.

This decision left many Americans asking: ‘What about Snowden?’

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During the same year of Manning’s sentencing, government contractor Edward Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

Snowden allegedly stole 1.7 million classified documents and leaked 200,000 of them to select journalists. Facing these felonious charges, two of which were brought under the 1917 Espionage Act, Snowden sought asylum, which was granted in Russia.

According to leading books on the topic of government whistleblowers, such as “After Snowden: Privacy, Secrecy, and Security in the Information Age,” unlike Manning, who dumped records without concern of the implications, Snowden gave his records to responsible journalists who curated them and only released what they deemed in the public interest. The news stories that resulted from Snowden’s leak won prestigious awards, such as a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post

In addition, federal courts ruled that the policies Snowden criticized did violate the Constitution. Yet, Obama had him indicted for espionage. White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, explained the “stark difference” between Manning and Snowden, “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing. Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”

Moreover, although Manning was less responsible in the way she released her documents, the information she disclosed were not considered as damaging to national security as those released by Snowden.

Regardless, given the indiscriminate way Manning released secret information, some politicians are saying the commutation of her sentence was a mistake that will encourage more acts of espionage in the future. 

For example, according to House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House passes resolution condemning white nationalism Anti-Defamation League calls on House leaders to censure Steve King over white supremacy comments MORE (R-Wis), “President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.”

So then, why did Obama choose to commute the sentence for Manning?

The support for Chelsea Manning has less to do with the public interest of the documents she released and the responsibility of the way in which she released them.

The reason why her sentence was commuted, as opposed to granting clemency to Snowden, is likely because of the serious mental health problems she was facing during the time of the leak and the difficulties she continues to face in prison.

During her 2013 trial, Manning’s attorney claimed that when she downloaded the documents and sent them to WikiLeaks she had been mentally and emotionally deteriorating, suffering from gender dysphoria under stressful and isolated conditions.

Prior to receiving clemency, Manning has continued suffering, going on hunger strike and attempting suicide twice, while being held in solitary confinement for intermittent periods at the prison barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Less than one week before Obama’s announcement, even Snowden asked for Manning’s clemency before his own.

Ultimately, there is a discernable difference between a whistleblower and a leaker. A whistleblower is someone like Snowden, who shed light on governmental actions that violated the constitution. A leaker, on the other hand, is someone who shares classified information that doesn’t expose violations of law, like Manning.

While the motivation may not be espionage in either of these instances, the information disclosed by a whistleblower or a leaker could be used to the advantage of a foreign nation and to the injury of the United States.

As such, the decision to grant clemency for Manning may have more to do with the mitigating circumstances of her mental health, as opposed to the public interest or responsibility of the information she disclosed.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco


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