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Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence
President Obama on Tuesday commuted the prison sentence of former Army soldier Chelsea Manning, according to the White House.
Manning was convicted in 2013 of leaking classified information about U.S. national security activities that were later disclosed by WikiLeaks.
The 35-year sentence Manning received was the longest ever imposed for a leak conviction. Manning has already served seven years of her sentence and will now be released on May 17, 2017.
She was originally set to be released be released in 2045.
A senior administration official said the president believes Manning has expressed remorse and that her time already served is "sufficient punishment for the serious crimes she committed."
Manning's grant came in a batch of 209 commutations and 64 pardons, announced with four days left in Obama's presidency.
The former Army private, who is transgender, has reportedly struggled with mental health issues. She has tried to commit suicide twice and has spent time in solitary confinement as punishment.
The White House had telegraphed the possibility of clemency for Manning in the past few days.
Press secretary Josh Earnest last week said there are differences between her case and that of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is facing espionage charges for leaking classified information on controversial surveillance programs.
"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," the spokesman told reporters Friday.
"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," he said of the former contractor, who is living in Russia.
Obama sang a different tune in 2011, when he said Manning, then known as Bradley, "broke the law" and deserved punishment.
Earnest on Tuesday all but ruled out a pardon for Snowden, saying he has not filed the proper paperwork with the Justice Department.
While a formal petition is not legally required, Obama has typically only considered clemency for those who have applied.
Obama's move could have consequences for the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, whose organization published material leaked by both Manning and Snowden.
"If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case," WikiLeaks tweeted last week.
But the Justice Department does not plan to bring charges against Assange for publishing classified information, according to The Washington Post.
The president's decision is sure to roil the debate about weighty issues such as intelligence leaks and criminal justice reform.
The move comes at a time when WikiLeaks is in the crosshairs of the Obama administration and lawmakers in both parties for its role in spreading emails allegedly hacked by Russia in an effort to undermine the 2016 elections.
"We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr," said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)
The administration official insisted that "the cases are entirely different."
The official said WikiLeaks' activity "continues to concern the president but that is wholly separate from the decision the president made to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning."
Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Manning, said he was "relieved and thankful" for the president's decision.
He called the 35-year sentence unfair, arguing it contributed to his client's poor mental health.
"This move could quite literally save Chelsea's life, and we are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman," said Strangio.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he doesn't agree with Obama's decision to release Manning early.
"I think on the larger issue of criminal justice reform, the president is really undermining our political capital by granting clemency at an unprecedented rate," Cornyn said. "People say, well why should we change the sentencing rules in criminal justice reform if the president can just do it with a flick of his pen?"
While it's the president's right to commute sentences, Cornyn said, it's not a wise move.
Sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation's sentencing laws never received a vote in Obama's second term, despite enjoying support from him and lawmakers in both political parties.
Instead, Obama has relied on his 2014 clemency initiative to advance his goal of shortening sentences for non-violent offenders he views as unjust.
The president has mostly doled out commutations and pardons to people convicted of drug crimes who received lengthy mandatory minimum sentences under requirements that have since been scaled back by Congress.
Obama has granted commutations to 1,385 federal inmates as president, more than the total number given by the past 12 presidents combined. He has also pardoned 212 people.
The White House is expected to announce another round of clemency grants on Thursday, officials said.
Most of Obama's clemency grants have gone to relatively unknown individuals but Tuesday's batch contained some who are famous, as is typical for presidents in their final days.
The president pardoned retired Gen. James Cartwright, who was convicted in 2012 for lying to FBI investigators while under questioning about leaks about a top secret U.S. program to derail Iran's nuclear program.
Oscar López-Rivera, a well-known Puerto Rican independence fighter, had his 75-year sentence commuted and will also be released May 17.
Former Major League Baseball legend Willie McCovey received a pardon for filing false tax returns.
Lydia Wheeler contributed.
- Updated at 5:43 p.m.