Chelsea Manning wearing a wig

Barack Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning’s Sentence, But Why?

Barack Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence this Tuesday, setting her release for May 17, exactly four months later. According to the White House, President Obama’s decision to commute the sentence was due to her sentence being excessive relative to other whistleblowers – which the president referred to as “leakers.” The president also denied that Julian Assange’s offer to submit to US extradition if Chelsea was granted clemency was a factor, claiming he was unaware of the offer at the time.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to Mr. Assange’s tweets, so that wasn’t a consideration in this instance. And I’d refer you to the Justice Department for any criminal investigations, indictments, extradition issues that may come up with him.

Julian Assange, who is wanted on rape charges, had offered to be extradited to the United States, according to Wikileaks, based upon Chelsea Manning being granted clemency on January 12, one week ago today. Fox News had interpreted this as a call for a pardon the day after, as would be assumed, and Assange holds a stance that he was calling for such. The tweet, itself, did not specify a pardon and so some are calling on Assange to be extradited since the commute is technically a form of clemency.

However, Barack Obama commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence, while still imperfect, is definitely a joyous event. Chelsea is an American hero, having alerted our citizens to war crimes our military committed in our name under the Bush Administration. She has attempted suicide more than once because of the emotional stress of dehumanizing conditions she has been subjected to in the prison, including the fact that it is supposed to be an all-male facility, denying her identity. Legal battles have been fought simply to get her access to gender transition, even after courts ruled that the prison must comply.

President Obama had promised to protect whistleblowers, like Chelsea, during his 2008 campaign and has since done the opposite. According to The Guardian, he has prosecuted eight individuals under the Espionage Act, more than double all previous presidents combined.

President Obama has given an explanation as to why he commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence, but stated reasons and actual reasons are not always in alignment, especially in politics. We will be examining several possible reasons for this commutation of the sentence.

Obama signing documents in 2015
President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence to expire on May 17, 2017. Actual event not pictured. [Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

The Official Reason

Barack Obama claimed his reason for commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence was that she had already served a tough prison sentence and had an excessive sentence applied to her compared to other whistleblowers. She was first arrested in 2010 and had been sentenced in 2013, raising questions why Obama would wait more than three years before commuting the sentence.

Presidents often grant many pardons and commutations in their last days of the presidency, though they usually wait until then because they are no longer accountable to the public. For example, Bill Clinton had pardoned his friends convicted in the Whitewater scandal. However, Barack Obama had promised to protect whistleblowers and was going back on his word by not protecting Chelsea originally. In 2012, Stewart Alexander, Socialist Party USA candidate for president was constantly calling for the pardon of “Breanna Manning,” even promising a medal of freedom, as she had not yet come public with the name Chelsea and mentioned she used the name Breanna in the leaked chats – I had stressed the use of that name to Alexander. Calls from across the political spectrum to the left of the Democrats were criticizing President Obama for holding her for her actions.

If he was avoiding accountability, like with most pardons, he would be prosecuting more individuals, not commuting sentences. While his explanation is not completely implausible, he would have been expected to have commuted the sentence in 2013, not waiting until today.

In the Light of Trump

Another possibility is that he sees a threat in Donald Trump’s presidency. By releasing Chelsea Manning early, he may be seeking to morally empower whistleblowers again, having stifled them for the past eight years. He may have been fully aware of Assange’s offer and interpreted it as a call for a pardon and, in the light of a Trump presidency, did not want Wikileaks stifled by Assange’s extradition. It is not impossible that he even communicated with Assange telling him not to accept the commutation as the clemency requested. I would like to remind readers that this is speculation and there is no direct evidence of any of this.

Wikileaks had been a thorn in the side of Republicans when it was founded and George W. Bush was still in office; Democrats loved Wikileaks back then. He would be fully aware that, despite the smearing of Wikileaks as a Trump surrogate, that they would continue to try to spread light on the abuses of a Trump presidency. While this is not as vital with Trump – he drained the murky waters from the swamp and so now the abuses of power are blatant rather than obscured – there will still be many cases of abuse behind the scenes that Wikileaks can expose. Wikileaks has been consistent in opposing abuses of power despite which party is in power across the globe.

Chelsea Manning’s sentence would originally have expired on February 5, 2045, so the May 17 date seems tied to the date of the clemency, not the date of release. It is certainly in the near future, but not so near in the future that it could be seen as the equivalent of a pardon.

Hey, Hillary, Here’s to You

Another possibility is that President Obama still has a secret grudge with Hillary Clinton. Hillary has had issues with Assange for a long time, beyond the leaking of her campaign’s shame and election rigging this past Summer, she had reportedly asked why they didn’t just send drones to kill him while Secretary of State, a statement she claimed she did not remember making – not denying it – but felt would have been a joke if she had made the statement. James Rucker, Co-founder of ColorOfChange.org and Citizen Engagement Lab, reminded us almost a year ago in the Huffington Post that Hillary Clinton had run in 2008 with a racist message, claiming that she was the better candidate because she was white. Her horrible run this past year also appears to be a death march for his signature legislation: the Affordable Care Act.

If President Obama had wanted to get on her nerves, he could have seen Assange’s offer and went out of his way to say he’s going to let Assange off the hook. If he had either already wanted to free Chelsea or if he was neutral on the idea, the way in which he commuted the sentence might be a jab at her.

Muddying the Waters

President Obama may have commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence as a way to discredit Julian Assange. If his concerns were mainly on the exposing of the neoliberal establishment of the Democratic Party, a wing which he seems to have eased right into after taking office in 2009, he might see giving Julian Assange an inch of rope by commuting Chelsea’s sentence instead of pardoning her, expecting that he would then not submit to extradition. This may then spread distrust of Wikileaks due to perception of Assange being not truthful, despite the outlet’s perfect record of leaking.

Why would he want to do this? Well, it keeps the Democratic Party faithful distrustful of Wikileaks and their leaks this past summer and early Fall. While the leaks have not been challenged by any authority – with the Hillary campaign settling on something in there might not be true, i.e. the vast majority definitely is – a large swath of Hillary’s supporters still believe the e-mails to either be fake or unreliable.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange had promised to be extradited to the United States if Chelsea Manning was given clemency. He later claimed that it only applied to a pardon and President Obama says the promise had no bearing on his decision. [Image by Carl Court/Getty Images]

By making Assange look untrustworthy, these false views of Wikileaks’ veracity are cemented. However, this seems unlikely given his comments on Wikileaks in his final speech.

So with respect to WikiLeaks, I don’t see a contradiction. 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 DNC emails that were leaked.

Throwing the Berniecrats a Bone

Another possibility for Obama commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence is that it is, in his eyes, an inconsequential act which will help appease Berniecrats who are, more and more, disavowing the Democratic Party with the hashtag #dumpthedems. In this act, he has set a significantly earlier date for releasing the American hero and passed by a chance to enact vengeance upon Julian Assange, both favored by the New Deal type Democrats reinvigorated by Bernie Sanders.

While the Democratic Party is not going to change its neoliberal ways, and is focusing its power on disavowing the obvious: that Americans are sick and tired of the status quo of neoliberalism and neoconservatism and that is why Hillary Clinton lost the election, Berniecrats can at least get their way on this issue which doesn’t change the overall policies which the party will fight for. Without the Berniecrats’ support, the Democratic Party is doomed to fade into history and be replaced by another party: either a current third party or a party yet to come, further to the left in either case.

Damage control is the name of the game.

No Clear Conclusion

It is uncertain which of these scenarios is true, though I am leaning toward the Trump scenario and against both the official story and the muddying the waters scenario. This is a testament to the variety of truths that we have to learn to navigate through in order to understand the workings of our political system and that things are often uncertain until something is leaked to provide us with more information.

However, in any case, we can rejoice that, at least, Chelsea Manning will soon be free. Others who should be pardoned: Edward Snowden, Leonard Peltier, Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and so on, have not yet been. At least Chelsea is free. In her honor, I suggest that we all unofficially recognize May 17, her release date, as Chelsea Manning Day both this year and in future years.

Barack Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence to a day close enough for us all to look forward towards.

[Featured Image by U.S Army/Wikipedia Fair Use]

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