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Vice's Broadly: Will President Obama Set Chelsea Manning Free?

December 13, 2016
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Six years after Chelsea Manning was convicted in the largest leak of classified military data in American history, the whistleblower and transgender woman has pled for President Obama to commute her 35-year sentence to time served. A government petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures last Friday evening, meaning the White House will be required to formally respond within 60 days, according to the federal website where the petition was hosted.

Manning's plea comes after a harrowing year fighting for access to health care with hunger strikes, and two suicide attempts behind bars. The sentence that Manning is serving is extreme: Other convicted whistleblowers have been given a range of sentences but they are generally low, in the range of one to three-and-a-half years in prison. Meanwhile, Manning is serving nearly four decades.

"In so many ways Chelsea's case is unprecedented," said Chase Strangio, one of Chelsea Manning's attorneys at the ACLU. According to Strangio, Manning's sentence is "the longest in United States history for disclosure of documents in the public interest to the news media." He added that the fact Manning is incarcerated "as a woman in a men's prison" only makes her case more exceptional.

Manning requested clemency after her conviction in 2013, but was denied by the army in the spring of 2014. In a post on Medium earlier this year, Manning explained the errors in her initial request for clemency. "It was too soon, and the requested relief was too much. I should have waited. I needed time to absorb the conviction, and to reflect on my actions. I also needed time to grow and mature as a person," she wrote, adding that now, after six years, she has now been confined for longer than other person convicted of similar crimes.

In her emotional plea to President Obama, Manning described the suffering she has endured in prison, the abuse she's been subjected to, such as solitary confinement, and the extreme toll that has been taken on her mental health. But it isn't clear whether or not President Obama will be sympathetic to her.

"Under the Obama Administration, individuals who have shared documents to the news media in the public interest have been prosecuted and jailed more than under any other presidency," Strangio said. "Indeed, more than all previous presidencies combined." In 2011, when Manning was being held by the state but not yet convicted of any crime, President Obama publicly stated that she "broke the law" and condemned the acts of whistleblowers: "We don't individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate," Obama said. Strangio says that this is just one more example of how Manning has experienced injustice under our current president's administration.

Dana Gold, a senior fellow at the Government Accountability Project, an advocacy and legal organization that supports and defends whistleblowers for the sanctity of democracy, told Broadly that there is ample reason that a commutation of Manning's sentence could and should be justified—from the unprecedented length of her sentence, to the fact that Manning did not intend to harm the United Stated—but she ultimately doubts that this will happen. "I sadly think the likelihood that President Obama will commute Chelsea Manning sentence is slim to none," Gold said.

She views Manning's imprisonment in the context of Wikileaks and the organization's dissemination of the data she gave to them. Given that data given to Wikileaks may have helped sway the 2016 presidential election, Gold is concerned that the government would not want to signal support for such actions at this time.

"I would love to be wrong on this," Gold added, "because I think more than ever we need to see leaking and whistleblowing as a symptom of institutional corruption and to come up with more nuanced and effective ways to address this root problem rather than attacking individuals who report abuses of power."

Given President Obama's track record with whistleblowers and statements regarding Manning specifically, it does seem unlikely that he would alter Manning's sentence. However, the Obama administration is coming to an end, and some see this as a time of urgency and opportunity. The political landscape of the United States has shifted dramatically in 2016 with the resurgence of far right ideologies empowered by Donald Trump, as well as the loss of Democratic power throughout federal government. Many people in prison feel a sense of urgency in the face of a Trump administration, and they are hastily pleading for clemency from President Obama, who is himself "racing" to use his powers for progress before his time in office is over. In November, President Obama "granted clemency to 72 more federal inmates," according to the Washington Post.

"It is impossible to know whether President Obama will take action on Chelsea's clemency petition," Strangio explained, "but as Chelsea's friend and lawyer, I hope that he recognizes the perilousness of her circumstances and the fact that her survival depends on his taking action now."

In addition to Manning's survival, her sentence commutation would also be an important demonstration of our government's commitment to the people's interests at a time when many fear our democracy is slipping toward an authoritarian form of rule. "Those who care about Chelsea—not to mention justice, accountability, and democracy—can only hope that [President Obama] has come to recognize the important role that whistleblowers play in building democratic accountability of an ever-growing national security state," Strangio says.

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