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Obama commutes Manning’s sentence, pardons former Gen. Cartwright, omits Bergdahl

An undated file photo of Pfc. Chelsea Manning, provided by the U.S. Army.

U.S. ARMY

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has commuted the 35-year sentence of Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, convicted of stealing thousands of pages of classified material and sending them to WikiLeaks, and pardoned retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a leak investigation.

The White House announced the actions involving Manning and Cartwright, a former vice chairman  of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, late Tuesday just three days before Obama leaves office. Obama commuted sentences of 208 others, primarily for drug-related offenses, and pardoned 63 others. Presidential commutations shorten offenders’ sentences, while pardons forgive convicted offenders of their crimes.

Notably absent from the list was Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had sought a presidential pardon to spare him from a court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl’s trial is scheduled for April.

Cartwright admitted he lied to federal investigators probing a 2012 leak of information to journalists about a covert cyber-attack against Iran’s nuclear program known as Stuxnet, which was used to cripple that country’s ability to enrich uranium, according to court documents.

The former general confirmed to reporters details of the program, but he told investigators he did so in an attempt to influence them not to publish potentially damaging national security information.

The former general pleaded guilty to the charges in October, and prosecutors had sought a two-year sentence.

Manning, formerly known as Bradley, was convicted in July 2013 of 20 charges, including violating the Espionage Act, theft of government records, communicating national defense information and disobeying orders. That August, she was sentenced to 35 years in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, reduced in rank to private and given a dishonorable discharge upon her release.

She was a junior intelligence analyst in Iraq in late 2009 with access to classified information. She later admitted to copying thousands of documents — including a video that showed American helicopters killing civilians and two journalists who were mistaken for enemy fighters — and later providing them to WikiLeaks, saying she thought that decision “was going to help people, not hurt people.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who will leave that post on Friday, did not back Obama’s decision to cut Manning’s sentence, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and declined to characterize the secretary’s objections.

More so, some Republican lawmakers blasted the outgoing president’s decision on Manning. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the commutation “outrageous” and said it set “a dangerous precedent.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was a “sad” reflection of Obama’s values as commander-in-chief.

“President Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence is a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline. It also devalues the courage of real whistleblowers who have used proper channels to hold our government accountable,” McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a prepared statement. “... 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.”

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has lobbied for Manning’s release, praised the decision.

Manning, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria while in prison and revealed she identified as a woman, has served more than six years, the longest a person has ever served for leaking sensitive information, according to the ACLU. The organization has also charged she has been held in inhumane conditions, including solitary confinement, which has led her to at least twice attempt suicide.

“President Obama’s action today most likely saved Chelsea’s life,” said James Esseks, the ACLU’s chief attorney for LGBT issues. “Allowing Chelsea to start living her life as her genuine self, after having served a quite serious sentence, shows that President Obama understands the meaning of clemency.”

Initially, Manning had faced much stiffer charges, including treason and aiding the enemy, for her 2009 leak of information that included secret details of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks. Prosecutors said during her trial at Fort Meade in Maryland that publicizing such sensitive information to the public allowed groups such as al-Qaida to better target deployed American troops and civilians. Prosecutors sought a 60-year sentence.

“Pvt. 1st Class Manning was not a humanist. He was a hacker,” Army Maj. Ashden Fein, the chief prosecutor, said at trial. “He was not a troubled young soul … and he was not a whistleblower. He was a traitor.”

In her request for clemency, Manning apologized for her actions and said she was suffering from mental issues when she stole the documents.

“I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose those materials to the public,” she said. “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.”

Last week, WikiLeaks announced on Twitter that its founder, Julian Assange, would agree to be extradited by the United States to Sweden, where he faces sexual-assault charges.

“If Obama grants Manning clemency, Assange will agree to U.S. extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of … [the] case,” WikiLeaks tweeted Jan. 12.

Assange has spent five years at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to face those charges.

It was not clear whether the WikiLeaks announcement affected Obama’s decision.

Bergdahl, the Army soldier who spent five years in Taliban captivity after abandoning his post in eastern Afghanistan, has sought a pre-trial pardon from Obama. His attorneys have said Bergdahl cannot receive a fair trial under a Donald Trump administration, because the president-elect has repeatedly called him a traitor. Bergdahl’s lawyers intend to file a motion seeking dismissal of the case in light of Trump’s comments shortly after he is sworn into office Friday.

It remains possible that Obama could grant him a pardon before he leaves office on Friday, but experts have told Stars and Stripes a pardon for the soldier is unlikely.

Bergdahl was returned to the U.S. military in May 2014 in a controversial exchange approved by Obama for five senior Taliban leaders who had been held in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Bergdahl admitted to Army investigators that he left his post, but he said he only intended to cause a disturbance that would gain senior commanders attention so he could alert them to problems he perceived within his unit.

Last year, the Army charged Bergdahl with “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place” and “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty.” The more serious misbehavior charge carries a potential life sentence.

He has yet to enter a plea to either of the charges against him and he remains on active duty in a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas.

Dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

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