President Obama Commutes Sentence of Chelsea Manning

The White House says Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentences Obama is shortening

President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified material. Her sentence is now set to expire May 17.

Manning — then known as Bradley — was locked up in 2010 after swiping more than 700,000 military files and diplomatic cables and giving them to Wikileaks.

Manning was born male but revealed after being convicted of espionage that she identifies as a woman. She is being held at the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, military prison and attempted suicide twice last year. 

Last week, Wikileaks pledged that if Obama granted Manning clemency, the group's founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the United States. 

Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012, and if extradited to the U.S., would likely be prosecuted for his involvement in the publication of a trove of secret diplomatic cables. Wikileaks tweeted Tuesday that Assange is "confident of winning any fair trial in the U.S. Obama's DoJ prevented public interest defense & fair jury."

The White House says Manning is one of 209 inmates whose sentence Obama is shortening in one of his final acts before leaving office on Jan. 20. Another 64 people also received pardons, including retired Gen. James Cartwright, who was charged with making false statements during a probe into disclosure of classified information. 

News of Manning's commutation was criticized by many on Capitol Hill. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Speaker Paul Ryan called Obama's action "outrageous." 

"Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets," Ryan said in 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.”

Sen. John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also condemned the commutation of Manning's sentence.

"I think it's so inappropriate to pardon someone who put the lives of other men and women in uniform in danger," McCain said. "I'm stunned."

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells NBC News that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter did not support the commutation of Manning in his recommendation to the president. 

All told, Obama has granted 1,385 commutations — which includes 504 life sentences — and 212 pardons. It is fewer pardons than some presidents, but more commutations than the past 12 presidents combined, the White House said. 

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Presidents have two clemency options: commutations, which reduce sentences being served but don't erase convictions, and pardons, which generally restore civil rights — like voting — often after a sentence has been served.

In the past, presidents have made a splash with clemency on their way out. Former President Bill Clinton ignited a major controversy with a last-minute pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich, the ex-husband of a major Democratic fundraiser. But Obama has viewed clemency as a tool to promote policy goals, not to "clean out the barn" on his way out, a White House official told The Associated Press.

Earlier in his presidency, Obama was unsatisfied with the cases he was receiving, officials said, and so in a 2014 initiative the Justice Department created specific criteria focusing on nonviolent individuals like drug offenders who have served 10 years and, if convicted under today's more lenient sentencing guidelines, would have received shorter sentences.

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Obama's goal in taking on the commutations project was to spur action in Congress on a criminal justice overhaul. That seemed initially promising, but the momentum petered out.

Most of the people receiving commutations Tuesday were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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