President Barack Obama has commuted the bulk of the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who leaked reams of classified US military and diplomatic documents and helped fuel the rise of WikiLeaks.
The decision means Manning, who as a US Army intelligence analyst in 2010 turned over troves of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, will be out of prison on May 17 — decades earlier than her 35-year-sentence, of which she’s into her seventh year, dictated. Despite the commutation, Manning has already paid a heavy price for her crimes, including spending long stretches in solitary confinement, which a United Nations report deemed torture, and repeated suicide attempts.
The decision seems virtually certain to reignite the long-running debate over Manning. Supporters venerate her as a whistleblower willing to risk prison to expose wrongdoing by the military and the US government. But critics accuse her of directly harming American national security.
Already, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned the commutation:
Among the key disclosures in the hundreds of thousands of files and diplomatic cables Manning turned over to WikiLeaks: documents showing that the civilian death toll in Iraq was far higher than official estimates and a startling video showing American helicopter pilots killing 12 people in Baghdad, including a pair of Reuters employees, and then casually discussing the aftermath. “Look at those dead bastards,” one pilot said in the 38-minute video. “Nice,” the second pilot said.
Obama’s decision to commute most of Manning’s sentence during his final days in office also raises questions about the future of Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia after leaking documents that revealed details about how the National Security Agency eavesdrops on both American citizens and world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In its initial public comments after the commutation, the White House tried to argue that the two cases were fundamentally different.
“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,” press secretary Josh Earnest told the New York Times. “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 she’s a trans woman, Manning was put in an all-male prison
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Manning, has been calling for the president to commute her sentence for months, citing the dangerous conditions that Manning faces as a transgender woman at an all-male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Manning’s original sentence was the longest ever imposed for a leak conviction.
“I’m relieved and thankful that the president is doing the right thing and commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence,” Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said in a statement. “Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary health care. 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, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many.”
The decision also frees the Pentagon from having to decide how far to go in helping Manning, who still identified as male when she leaked the documents to WikiLeaks, transition to life as a woman. The military gave Manning access to hormone therapy, but balked at letting her grow her hair out or pursue gender-affirming surgery.
Medical experts, from the American Medical Association to the American Psychiatric Association, widely agree that letting trans people transition is key to preventing the worst symptoms of gender dysphoria, a state of emotional distress caused by how someone's body or the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity. Untreated dysphoria can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Manning tried to kill herself at least twice during her time in prison.
But until last year, the military still enforced a policy of discharging openly serving trans soldiers. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter moved to change that policy last June. Although the policy change is still in the process of implementation (and could be upended by the upcoming Trump administration), the military plans to provide care for trans soldiers, including gender-affirming surgery, instead of kicking them out.
Although courts and advocates have long argued that denying trans people care that medical associations deem necessary violates Eighth Amendment protections against “cruel and unusual punishment,” prisons all around the country — including military prisons — have been resistant to letting trans people go through gender-affirming treatment.
Manning experienced that resistance firsthand. But she’ll be free of it in four months.