With two days left in his presidency, Barack Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence. Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst currently being held in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth as Inmate 89289, will now be released in May. This is most welcome news, as surely new torments, sponsored by the incoming Trump administration, would have awaited her. According to a recent report by The New York Times, she’s been punished by prison officials for possessing outdated toothpaste (deemed “medical misuse”) and put into solitary confinement as a penalty for the disruption her attempted suicide caused the prison.
In a better world—a world where liberals were willing to protest the militarism of a liberal president—Manning would be a hero, and the material she helped make public celebrated with the kind of enthusiasm that liberals today celebrate the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers gave us context, a step-by-step account of deepening US involvement in Vietnam. Manning’s leaks, as Chase Madar discusses below, are more episodic and fragmentary, but equally important: “a mosaic portrait of two flailing pacification campaigns” in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as insight into other doings of US foreign policy, including diplomatic pressure to keep wages low in Haiti.
Amnesty International hailed the administration’s announcement: “Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the U.S. government for years,” said Executive Director Margaret Huang. “President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.” As Madar notes, a unique coalition, including Infowars paranoiacs, came together behind Manning. Though traditional hawks, like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, immediately objected. Manning, Cotton said, “should continue to serve” her sentence. We await Trump’s tweet.
Until then, Madar, author of The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower, gives his reaction to the commutation. (Note: the book was published while Manning was known as Bradley; Madar now uses Chelsea in brackets when referring to it.)
Clemency for Chelsea Manning is, for most of us, a real surprise. Did you see this coming?
A year ago this was unthinkable but the Obama administration started dropping heavy hints last week, when the usually tight-lipped Department of Justice leaked to NBC News that Manning was on the president’s “short list” for clemency, clearly a trial balloon to see how the public would respond. Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest laid the rhetorical groundwork for a Manning commutation, stressing to reporters that the Wikileaks source had faced up to her actions and been tried and convicted in a court of law and had apologized. I thought Manning’s courtroom apology was pretty pro-forma, but whatever—it gives the White House something to latch onto in justifying clemency. And Earnest compared Manning favorably to Snowden, setting up a Goofus and Gallant parable about leakers, which I think is unfortunate, because Snowden is also eminently deserving of clemency, but that’s what the White House is doing.