The former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, jailed for seven years already and serving a 35-year sentence set to end in 2045, will be free in just five months on May 17. The New York Times reports that President Obama has commuted much of Manning's sentence, which was the longest ever imposed for a conviction relating to leaks.
Manning was deployed to Iraq as a low-level intelligence analyst in 2009. Through access to a classified computer network, she copied military incident logs that showed Iraqi civilian deaths were higher than official estimates and exposed abuses of detainees held by the Iraqi military. Manning's leaks, disclosed by Julian Assange's Wikileaks, brought that organization and Assange to prominence. Court-martialed, Manning claimed she was acting under duress, suffering from mental illness. She was accused of treason but plead guilty to a lesser version of charges under the Espionage Act, and after her sentencing, she disclosed that she had also been coming to terms with her gender identity as a transgender woman, asking that she be referred to as Chelsea going forward rather than Bradley, her birth name.
In the years after her trial, Manning has become a symbol for both the rights of trans prisoners, and a hero of the greater trans community, who often find themselves at odds with the government in their daily lives.
In November, Manning, who is held at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, pleaded with the president, citing her difficult predicament. "The bottom-line is this: I need help and I am still not getting it," Manning told NPR through an intermediary, after she had been forced into solitary confinement following multiple suicide attempts. Manning has had limited support while incarcerated at a male military facility: She is permitted hormone therapy, but her transition is partial, and she has so far not been allowed to groom or present herself as female. In September, it was reported through her ACLU attorney that Manning had been granted permission from military medical staff to receive gender confirmation surgery, though that has not yet taken place.
In an application for the commutation of her sentence, Manning wrote that she takes "full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose these materials to the public... I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”
Evan Greer, campaign director for internet freedom advocacy organization Fight for the Future and ardent Manning advocate, issued a statement saying, "Chelsea’s release is massive victory for free speech, human rights, and democracy. As someone who has become friends with Chelsea over the last year, but has never had a chance to see her face... I’m so excited for the world to get to know her as the compassionate, intelligent, and kind person who she is."
The internet has already been asking what this might mean for another major leaker of the era, Edward Snowden, but the situation there is different since Snowden has not actually been in the country to face any charges. White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest drew a stark contrast between Manning and Snowden. “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,” he said. “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.”
As a result of Manning's commutation, pundits have posited that no similar move is likely toward Snowden. However, Snowden himself celebrated the decision, for which he has advocated:
In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer! https://t.co/PaLvJDvDbl— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 17, 2017
Other reactions, such as those from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and journalist Judith Miller, have not been favorable:
Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets.— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) January 17, 2017
My full statement ↓ pic.twitter.com/PcQrgK2SI3
Obama commutes sentence of Chelsea Manning. How many people died because of manning' leak? https://t.co/WrijBtp4fo— Judith Miller (@JMfreespeech) January 17, 2017
Wikileaks, another advocate for Manning's release, claimed earlier this month that if Obama freed Manning, then Julian Assange, currently in London at the Embassy of Ecuador, would allow himself to be extradited to the US.
If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case https://t.co/MZU30SlfGK— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 12, 2017
Well? Your move, Julian.