In his last week in office, President Barack Obama commuted the remaining 28 years of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence. Manning has been in and out of the headlines since 2010 when she, then known as Bradley, leaked protected information to Wikileaks while serving in the Army as an intelligence analyst in Iraq.
Many liberals and libertarians will be quick to claim Obama’s commuting of Manning’s sentence as “just.” Meanwhile, conservatives, and many members of the military, will say Obama is soft on crime. Yet, her case is nuanced and should not be approached with an ideology.
The truth is, Manning’s case rests somewhere in the middle. It’s okay to feel ambivalent or saddened by the entirety of the circumstances.
While the public has a right to know what the United States is doing in day-to-day operations overseas, the military has an interest in maintaining good order and discipline. Manning’s leaks exposed the occurrence of airstrikes that resulted in an estimated 175 civilian deaths. Yet, her actions alone cost the government potentially millions of dollars in moving diplomats named in the leaked documents.
The government treated Manning inhumanely by placing her in solitary confinement, but the unfortunate reality is that she committed serious offenses in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The military is held to a higher standard
Military service members are held to a higher standard than the general public. Empowered leadership, and, if necessary, the UCMJ are critical to maintaining good order and discipline. While Manning claimed she was acting on her conscience, the mind of a lower-enlisted soldier doesn’t matter in a deployed environment.
That sentiment was on display when the military ignored Manning’s mental state before she leaked the documents. At the time of the release, she was experiencing a declining mental and emotional health and testified to episodes of catatonia while in Iraq. Her mental state was not helped by her treatment while in pre-trial confinement at Quantico. The government recognized this and gave credit for time served in the sentencing phase of her trial.
Three years after her initial arrest in May 2010, Manning was convicted on 19 of the 22 specifications outlined in three charges against her. Although her 35-year sentence was criticized as “harsh” and “unprecedented,” it was much less than the maximum punishment outlined in the UCMJ.
In fact, Manning was eligible for early release after eight years based on time served and good behavior. So, Obama’s commutation may only be saving Manning a year in confinement. While no one deserves to serve time in prison unjustly, Obama’s actions tell other potential leakers that the government may not treat similar acts as gravely as it should.
When a leak occurs, the U.S. cannot predict the extent of the impact and, therefore, must take every incident seriously. Meanwhile, the military’s mission continues. Obama’s commutation strips commanders of their ability to maintain good order and discipline among the troops they oversee. Yet, Obama is able to wash his hands of an ugly case as he steps away as Commander in Chief.
If only we all had such a privilege.
Follow Brad Omland on Twitter: @bradradio.