I am again at a loss for words. Like I was on that hot summer day in 2013 at Fort Meade when, after years of arduous work documenting and transcribing Pvt. Chelsea Manning’s court-martial, her 35-year sentence came down.
For years during those proceedings, the government prohibited the public from accessing the court record, despite Manning having been charged with aiding the enemy, one of only two offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that apply to any person—not just military personnel. The day the sentence came down, I felt numb. Today, I feel gratitude.
President Barack Obama’s decision Tuesday to commute Manning’s sentence emphasizes the relevance of mercy to national security and to criminal justice. Security in a liberal democracy is not merely a result of coercion or sentencing regimes, but forged in the trust that an informed citizenry places in the wisdom and justness of our policies and laws.
Executive clemency is a fail-safe for imperfect laws like the Espionage Act. This commutation abrogates the dangerous precedent that would have equated leaks to the public by citizens on par with spies conducting espionage. Clemency also serves interests of justice in Manning’s case, which has long suffered from a lack of public oversight and comprehension of legal facts.
Should Manning have served her entire sentence, she would have incarcerated long after many of the documents that she disclosed to the WikiLeaks organization in 2010 would have been officially declassified.
Branded a traitor by prosecutors, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy at her court-martial. Much of the material that she leaked had been widely distributed among nearly half a million government employees, military personnel, and federal contractors. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s classified review of the roughly 750,000 documents Manning disclosed reportedly placed the overall risk to U.S. national security at moderate to low. She was eventually convicted under the Espionage Act of disclosing secret portions of just 227 documents.
Three of the five Guantanamo detainee profiles, for example, that Manning was convicted of disclosing were of the so-called Tipton 3: three British citizens from Tipton, England, who were held at Gitmo for two years and then released without charges or trial. They were awarded millions of dollars to settle their lawsuit against the U.K., for its complicity in their illegal detention by the U.S.
And while Manning was sentenced to more than a quarter of the 136 years her prosecutors asked for, that was more time than any individual in U.S. history has received for disclosing national-defense information to the public.
Her abusive pretrial treatment, harsh sentence, and recent punitive placement in solitary confinement for a suicide attempt have all been pointed to as justifications for the decision by Edward Snowden, who disclosed materials far more closely held by the U.S. government, to remain a fugitive from American justice.
Indeed, Manning’s disproportionate sentence was meant to chill all future disclosure of information that serves the public interest and ultimately our democratic republic.
She stood trial, and took responsibility. Her respect for public consent, deliberation, the courts, and the rule of law in relation to her acts of civil disobedience are consistent with the spirit of her original leaks. Unlike Snowden, perhaps, Manning didn’t make any excuses.
I don’t think I will ever truly understand what moved me to cover Manning’s investigation and trial as I did.
Part of it was about the diminutive character of Chelsea Manning. She was young, full of earnestness, and idealism. She was a low-ranking soldier, misunderstood, mischaracterized, and mistreated, trying to seek a fair shake in a massive national-security trial and the current media environment.
Manning has faced gargantuan obstacles, and she has persevered with dignity and grace. She has shown respect for the institutions that have condemned her.
A portion of her treatment during her pretrial confinement inside a Marine Corps brig—where she was stripped of her clothing and forced to stand naked at attention—was ruled illegal by a military judge.
She has been called a traitor. She had to face a U.S. military-court martial as a transgendered woman. The lack of public access to her trial meant rumors became truth, and the truth didn’t matter. She was used as a warning by the government; and even as a prop by other leakers to justify themselves.
And, she has been voiceless, except for a few small portions of audio of her court-martial that have surfaced.
So, today, I want to emphasize how Manning triumphed. The facts triumphed. Just for today, justice triumphs.
History will show us that these events were not just about a so-called traitorous soldier. They were about who we are as Americans; what our elected leaders did; and what our nation represents. Let us never forget that these events have always been a reflection of us, too.