One of the last acts of President Barack Obama’s presidency, on January 17, was to commute the sentence of “Chelsea” (formerly Bradley) Manning—the former Army intelligence analyst who was convicted of releasing over 700,000 confidential files to Wikileaks. Manning came out as transgender, requesting to be called “Chelsea” and treated as a female, the day after being sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013. Mr. Obama reduced the sentence to seven years, meaning that Manning will be released in May.
President Obama’s action was widely panned—even his own Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, said publicly that he opposed it. But Mr. Obama defended the commutation in his final press conference the next day by insisting that “the sentence that she received was very disproportional—disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received.”
This is the argument that defenders of Manning—many of them LGBT activists—had made, depicting Manning merely as a “leaker” or (even more sympathetically) a “whistleblower,” based on his reported motive of wanting to expose wrong-doing by the U.S. military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Conservatives have tended to use a harsher word for Manning—“traitor.” In a general sense, there can hardly be any doubt that Manning’s actions were a betrayal of his military responsibilities and his country. From a legal perspective, however, the crime of “treason” was not one with which Manning was formally charged.
Manning was charged with 22 different offenses. He pled guilty to ten, but went to trial on the remaining 12. He chose a bench trial in which the verdict would be issued by the judge, not a jury.
Manning was acquitted on the single most serious charge of “aiding the enemy,” which could have carried a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole. He was convicted on virtually all the other charges. The convictions could have subjected him to up to 90-136 years in prison. Even the ten counts to which he pled guilty could have led to up to 20 years in prison. At trial, the prosecution asked for a sentence of 60 years. In the end, the judge sentenced Manning to 35 years.
While Manning’s defenders on the left call him a “whistle-blower” and critics on the right prefer “traitor,” perhaps a more neutral term based on Manning’s proven crimes would be “spy.” After all, several counts of espionage were among the crimes of which he was convicted.
So instead of comparing Manning’s sentence to that of other “leakers,” perhaps a more reasonable comparison would be to others convicted in prominent cases of espionage.
Aldrich Ames, for example, was a former CIA analyst convicted in 1994 of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Robert Hanssen was a former FBI agent, also convicted (in 2001) of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. He is serving fifteen consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
Manning’s defenders point out that he did not provide the information he stole to an enemy government. They seem to believe that releasing confidential documents to the public through Wikileaks—so that our enemies and everyone else in the world can see them—is somehow less serious than releasing them surreptitiously to an enemy government alone. I’m not sure I see the logic in that argument.
Jonathan Pollard was an intelligence specialist for the Navy who, according to Wikipedia, “is the only American who has received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally of the U.S.”—namely, Israel. He was convicted in 1987, and served 28 years in prison before being paroled in 2015.
Even under his 35-year sentence, it is reported that Manning could have been “eligible for parole after serving one-third of the sentence.” If granted parole, that would have meant Manning’s release after less than 12 years of confinement. It hardly seems like another five years of confinement after seven have already passed would have been the grave hardship Manning’s defenders claim.
Whether because of sympathy with his anti-war stance or sympathy with his transgender status, it seems like President Obama has left Manning with a punishment that is far too lenient—not too harsh.