In his final days in office, President Barack Obama has commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army private whose transfer of classified data to WikiLeaks kicked off a startling era of secrets spilling that continues to shape world politics.
The shortening of Manning’s sentence also came with a pardon for Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Marine was prosecuted for leaking details to journalists of Stuxnet, an offensive U.S. cyber operation that destroyed Iran’s uranium centrifuges.
Both cases illustrate the complexities of how the government deals with classified leaks and their leakers, and how, in some instances, clemency is not out of the question. It also raises questions over the dispositions of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and another marooned data activist, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Leaked Cables, Videos
Manning, who is transgender and changed her name from Bradley, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for copying 750,000 pages of U.S. military reports and several videos. One that caused a major stir was a cockpit video of a 2007 Apache helicopter strike in Iraq that killed a Reuters journalist and injured another.
The documents included State Department diplomatic cables, which revealed frank evaluations by diplomats that caused much embarrassment for the U.S. Manning, a private first class, had access to classified systems as part of her job as an intelligence analyst while stationed in Iraq in 2009 and 2010.
Manning would have been in prison until 2045; now, she will be released on May 17 after serving seven years. Manning apologized at trial, saying the actions, in part, stemmed from personal issues. She has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition in which people feel their biological gender is incorrect.
While incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, she has struggled with mental health issues due, in part, to long stretches of solitary confinement, and she has attempted suicide.
Manning’s commutation came just three days before Donald Trump becomes U.S. president. The move is sure to ignite debate over the prosecution and punishment of those who leak classified material, including the most famous leaker, Snowden.
Obama’s administration has had little tolerance for leakers and has aggressively pursued those thought to have given up government secrets. Civil liberties groups have often said the administration was heavy-handed.
Hope for Snowden?
A White House spokesman drew a clear line between Manning’s situation and that of Snowden, a former NSA contractor who stole gigabytes of documents that described in detail signal intelligence operations run by the U.S. and the U.K.
According to The New York Times, the administration saw stark differences between the Manning and Snowden cases.
“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,” according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest, the newspaper reported. “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.”
Manning’s leaks were dangerous to national security, but Snowden’s leaks were “far more serious and fair more dangerous,” Earnest says, according to the newspaper report.
Snowden’s leaks had a vast influence on the technology industry after it was discovered the NSA had infiltrated the networks of major companies, some in stealth and others by secret court orders. Many companies have since strengthened their internal security and implemented encryption to provide greater protection against electronic dragnets run by spy agencies.
His leaks were also instrumental in changes that put greater restrictions on how intelligence agencies could process and handle voluminous amounts of data on Americans without a court warrant.
The Trump Era
It remains to be seen how Trump’s presidency could affect Snowden. After increasing tension with the intelligence community, Trump says he’s accepted its belief that Russia mounted an extensive cyber espionage campaign that sought to influence the U.S. presidential election.
But Trump had steadfastly defended his belief that at the start of his administration relations with Russia should begin on fresh footing.
Snowden was indicted by the U.S. government in June 2013. He is charged with theft and two violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. He faces up to 10 years in prison on each of the charges.
Russian granted him a visa after he fled Hong Kong, and he remains around Moscow. He has said he would voluntarily return if guaranteed a fair trial. Complicating matters, Russia and the U.S. do not have an extradition treaty. That has long frustrated U.S. law enforcement officials who have sought in vain to prosecute suspected Russian cybercriminals.
In theory, Snowden could stay in Russia indefinitely. But as the U.S. and Russia embark on a new relationship with Trump at the helm, the chance of him becoming a bargaining chip as part of horse-trading between the nations rises.
On Twitter, Snowden thanked Obama and also sent a message of support to Manning: “In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer!”
WikiLeaks, which U.S. intelligence officials believed received the leaked Democratic Party emails and documents from Russian-backed hackers, called Manning’s clemency a “victory” on Twitter. The group has paid a crucial role in publicizing some of the most famous leaks over the last few years.
Its founder, Julian Assange, has lived in Ecuador’s embassy for nearly five years in London. Swedish prosecutors continue to investigate two alleged sexual assault accusations against him. Assange fears if he leaves the safety of the embassy to face those accusations, he could receive hassle from the U.S. related to the Manning documents.
As rumors of Manning’s commutation circulated, WikiLeaks tweeted on Jan. 13 that “If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to U.S. extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case.” As of Jan. 18, it’s unclear if that tweet represents Assange’s true intentions.