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Obama commutes Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence

Chelsea Manning. Illustration by Alicia Neal, in cooperation with Manning, commissioned by the Chelsea Manning Support Network, April 23, 2014. Alicia Neal

Chelsea Manning — the transgender former Army intelligence officer who leaked classified U.S. Army and State Department secrets to WikiLeaks — has been granted her wish: President Obama Tuesday largely commuted the bulk of what remains on her 35-year prison sentence for espionage.

Her attorney, Chase Strangio of the ACLU, was on the phone with journalist Katie Couric when he heard the news. He told journalists this “could quite literally save Chelsea’s life.”

Manning’s friend and staunch advocate Evan Greer said that she was “totally elated” at Obama’s announcement, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company Tuesday night, but that she had not yet had the opportunity to meet with Manning in person.

Manning is set to be freed from Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas in five months, on May 17 of this year, rather than in 2045, as The New York Times reported. Her lawyers said in her nearly seven years behind bars, she had already served the longest sentence of anyone convicted of leaking secrets in United States history. 

The White House says Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama is shortening. According to The Marshall Project, commutations and pardons cannot be undone by Donald Trump after he is sworn in Friday as the nation’s 45th president. “He can’t take away benefits and rights that have already gone out to people,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and an expert on constitutional law and the federal system.

Many of the mainstream media reports included a detail irrelevant to her imprisonment: her former first name, given at birth. The military reluctantly agreed to adopt her chosen first name, Chelsea, in her medical records, although an Army doctor refused to change her gender marker.

Last week, the White House signaled Obama was seriously contemplating granting Manning’s commutation application, but his spokesman clarified Friday it would not take the same approach to an appeal by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency intelligence contractor who leaked top secret surveillance files and fled to Russia.

Josh Earnest told reporters there was a “pretty stark difference” between Manning’s plea for mercy and Snowden’s, noting what he called “some important differences.”

“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,” Earnest said. “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.”

Although Manning’s WikiLeaks documents were “damaging to national security,” they were less so compared to what Snowden disclosed: “far more serious and far more dangerous.” Not one of the documents Manning disclosed were classified above the merely “secret” level, however the 2010 leak still revealed American military and diplomatic activities across the world, disrupted the Obama administration’s operations, and turned WikiLeaks into a household name. 

In recent days, both Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — himself a fugitive at the Ecuadorian embassy in London — asked Obama to give Manning’s request for clemency priority.

Assange even offered to surrender to extradition to the United States, where he could face charges of espionage, if Manning’s sentence was commuted. So far, no comment from Assange or WikiLeaks.

Manning, who came out as trans during her court martial and publicly declared her desire for gender affirmation surgery upon her incarceration in August 2013, has twice tried to commit suicide, and went on a hunger strike until military brass approved her request for gender affirmation surgery.

The ACLU petitioned for her release on the basis of time served, pleading that she needed better medical care to treat her gender dysphoria, which many transgender individuals experience and often causes anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The petition crossed the 100,000 signature mark which earned it a review by the Obama administration.

Due to the restrictive nature of her imprisonment, there’s no word yet from Manning herself, but her Twitter feed has been filled with a campaign urging her freedom. Even REM’s Michael Stipe added his own message:

And upon learning Manning’s sentence would be commuted, the lead singer for REM issued this statement: “Incredible courage on the part of both Obama and Chelsea Manning,” he said. “What a thrilling day for true patriots!!”

Other celebrities and politicians joined in, some praising, some condemning Obama’s decision, via Twitter:

 

There were no tweets as of press time from President-elect Donald Trump. However, conservative blowhard Ann Coulter filled in with vitriol by the gallon.

Editor’s note: this story was updated to include reaction to the announcement of Manning’s commutation and a law expert’s professional opinion that Obama’s commutation cannot be undone by the next president.

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