During his final press conference as president, Barack Obama defended his 11th-hour commutation of former Army private Chelsea Manning’s 35-year “tough” prison sentence as “entirely appropriate.”
When confronted over whether or not his mercy for Manning constituted a dangerous precedent of meting out light punishments for serious crimes, Obama denied it. Citing the time that Manning has spent in prison and the “responsibility” she took for her crimes, the president implied criminals can receive clemency if they express enough remorse and undergo “tough” enough sentences.
“First of all, let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence.”
“Well, first of all, let’s be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama said. “So the notion that the average person who’s thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished —I don’t think [he] would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served.”
Thus, instead of serving a full 35 years since her 2013 conviction, Manning will be released on May 17, 2017.
The outgoing president caused outrage throughout the country and the intelligence community when he announced Manning’s commutation along with an unprecedented 208 other commutations Tuesday. Manning raised hackles across the nation when she delivered hundreds of classified materials to WikiLeaks that were subsequently published. While in prison, Manning struggled with mental health issues and attempted suicide.
“It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute — not pardon — her sentence,” Obama responded.
What Obama failed to mention, however, was the reasoning behind Manning’s “disproportionate” harsh sentencing. Manning was convicted of extremely serious crimes, including theft and espionage, although she was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. U.S. citizens convicted on charges related to leaking classified information usually receive lighter sentences when they’re not convicted of capital offenses like as Manning was, a critical point the president failed to make.
When asked how he personally reconciled commuting Manning’s sentence with the national outcry against Russian hacking and WikiLeaks revelations during the 2016 presidential election season — Obama said he saw no discrepancy.
“So, with respect to WikiLeaks, I don’t see a contradiction,” Obama said. “First of all, I haven’t commented on WikiLeaks generally. The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the [Democratic National Committee] emails that were leaked.”
“With respect to Chelsea Manning, I looked at the particulars of this case the same way I had for the other commutations and pardons that I’ve done,” Obama continued. “And I felt that in light of all the circumstances, that commuting her sentence was entirely appropriate.”
In the end, Obama’s murky reasoning behind his controversial decision left many in the defense and intelligence communities outraged, including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, a senior Defense Department official confirmed to CNN.
“And I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent that when it comes to our national security,” Obama continued, “that wherever possible, we need folks who may have legitimate concerns about the actions of government or their superiors or the agencies in which they work, that they try to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the less, lower protections that have been put in place.”