Obama Faces Criticism for Manning Commutation

Republican leaders say decision sets precedent of not holding accountable individuals who damage U.S. national security

Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning / AP
January 18, 2017

President Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army soldier jailed for leaking classified national security information, opening himself up to criticism from leading Republican lawmakers in his final days in office.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) slammed the commutation as "outrageous," accusing Obama of setting a precedent that individuals who endanger U.S. national security will go unpunished. Leaders on key House and Senate committees overseeing the Department of Defense also described the decision as a mistake.

Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, was sentenced in 2013 by a military judge to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of pages of classified information later published by WikiLeaks. Manning, who is transgender, reportedly suffered from mental health issues and tried to commit suicide twice in prison.

The White House announced Tuesday that President Obama was commuting Manning's sentence, which will allow the former soldier to be freed on May 17 of this year instead of in 2045. Manning has served nearly seven years of a 35-year sentence.

CNN, citing a senior defense official, reported that the move was made despite objections from Ash Carter, Obama's secretary of defense.

As of Wednesday morning, Democrats were largely silent on the decision, although Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Robert Menendez of New Jersey were critical of Obama's commutation hours after the news broke.

President-elect Donald Trump had not yet weighed in on the commutation, while many Republican lawmakers reacted to the commutation on Tuesday evening, criticizing Obama for sending the wrong message to individuals who compromise U.S. national security interests.

"This is just outrageous. Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets," Ryan said in a statement. "President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won't be held accountable for their crimes."

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Armed Services, said that Obama's decision to commute Manning's sentence "sends a terrible message to the world that the penalties for damaging our security can be swayed by politics."

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, leaked 750,000 documents—consisting of U.S. military battlefield reports from Afghanistan and Iraq and diplomatic cables—to WikiLeaks while deployed in Iraq. Manning was convicted of multiple espionage, theft, and other charges in July 2013 but was not found guilty of aiding the enemy.

WikiLeaks is the same website that published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair. The U.S. intelligence community has linked the website to Russia's cyber and disinformation campaign targeting the U.S. presidential election.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, characterized the commutation as a "grave mistake," adding that it could encourage further espionage and undermines whistleblowers who use the correct channels to report problems with the government.

"It is a sad, yet perhaps fitting commentary on President Obama's failed national security policies that he would commute the sentence of an individual that endangered the lives of American troops, diplomats, and intelligence sources by leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks, a virulently anti-American organization that was a tool of Russia's recent interference in our elections," McCain said.

"Thousands of Americans have given their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq upholding their oaths and defending this nation. Chelsea Manning broke her oath and made it more likely that others would join the ranks of her fallen comrades. Her prison sentence may end in a few months' time, but her dishonor will last forever."

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), an Army combat veteran, accused Obama of treating "a traitor like a martyr."

"When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks," Cotton said. "I don't understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies."

Manning was one of several high-profile commutations announced by the White House on Tuesday. Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 individuals during his eight years in office, more than any president in U.S. history.