In a surprise move which is reportedly fueling “shock” within the US intelligence community, President Obama today commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former private first class who was the source for massive WikiLeaks caches, including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables.
The 29-year-old Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for the leaks, which at the time were considered among the largest such leaks of classified material in history. She will be released on May 17 with the rest of her sentence commuted.
Heavily vilified by prosecutors and officials and held years before the actual trial, Manning faced serious enough mistreatment in detention while awaiting trial that the United Nations actually launched its own investigation into the matter.
Manning’s physical and emotional health was said to be waning in the face of the protracted detention, and her attorney had warned that the sentence far exceeded international norms, and that she had twice attempted suicide. It is unclear if her condition played a role in the clemency.
In a less surprising move, President Obama also pardoned Gen. James Cartwright, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had pled guilty to a felony count of lying to the FBI related to the leaks of the classified Stuxnet virus.
Gen. Cartweight was a close ally of the president, often called “Obama’s General,” and appeared to have fallen out of favor with the rest of the military leadership in Obama’s first term over his offer of an alternate plan to the 2009 Afghan surge, a plan then chairman Admiral Michael Mullen wanted withheld from the White House.
Cartwright claimed to have been promised the position of chairman of the joint chiefs in 2011, though faced with what was described as a “smear campaign” Obama backed off the plan, and ended up with Gen. Martin Dempsey instead. Cartwright left the military at this point.
Manning’s sentence being commuted is the much bigger shock, as Obama had long condemned the whistleblower, though he did contrast her with NSA leader Edward Snowden, noting that Manning “went through the military criminal justice process” and “acknowledged wrongdoing,” while Snowden fled the country.
Adding another element of potential intrigue, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, offered last week to be extradited to the United States in return for clemency for Manning. There is no word yet on this front since the commutation, though with Obama having just a few more days in office the Assange question may be left to his successor.