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White House Justifies Chelsea Manning’s Possible Commutation

President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to indicate whether it will commute United State Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence to time served, but on January 13, it gave the clearest hint yet that a commutation is a distinct possibility.

White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest was asked about Manning and National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has sought a pardon from Obama.

At first, Earnest gave a boilerplate response. Obama and the Justice Department will consider “individual clemency applications on their merits.” But then he launched into a more specific answer without any follow-up question or request to give additional information.

“There obviously are a wide range of factors that the president and the Department of Justice will consider, and I think to illustrate one of them would be to illustrate the pretty stark difference between Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.”

“Chelsea Manning is someone who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” Earnest stated. “Edward Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine the confidence in our democracy.” [*Note: Snowden says the State Department revoked his passport, and that’s how he ended up stranded at a Moscow airport, where he sought asylum in Russia.]

“So, I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different,” Earnest suggested. “I can’t speculate at this point about to what degree that will have an impact on the President’s consideration of clemency requests. I know that there’s a temptation because the crimes were relatively similar to lump the cases together, but there are some important differences, including the scale of the crimes that were committed and the consequences of their crimes.”

“Obviously, as Chelsea has acknowledged and as we have said many times, that the release of the information that she provided to WikiLeaks was damaging to national security, but the disclosures by Edward Snowden were far more serious and far more dangerous.”

The comparison is remarkable, and it suggests Obama may be willing to offer her relief because she faced the consequences and took responsibility for her actions in a court of law.

Ever since NBC News reported on January 11 that Manning was on a “short list” for commutation, there has been a significant increase in media attention to her case. The New York Times, which sometimes showed interest in her court-martial, published a story profiling her incarceration at Leavenworth military prison.

Earnest was asked on January 12 whether Manning was on President Obama’s “short list.” He would not confirm this report. Even more significantly, he did not address any specifics of Manning’s case and stuck to a boilerplate answer.

“There is a well-established process for individuals to seek clemency from the President of the United States. That is a process that has been organized by the Department of Justice who will review those petitions for clemency,” Earnest said.

“But I don’t have any comment on any of the petitions that have been submitted thus far. I can’t even confirm the existence of a petition or rely on those who are filing the petitions to indicate whether or not they filed them. And this applies not just to people like Chelsea Manning, but also applies to people like Governor Rod Blagojevich whose representatives have made clear that he would like some clemency from the President of the United States. But I just don’t have any comment on those potential applications.”

Dinah PoKempner, general counsel for Human Rights Watch, called it “hopeful news” that Manning is reportedly on a “short list” for commutation. “She is serving a grossly disproportionate prison term in comparison with any other leaker of national security information in the U.S. or indeed any democratic ally of the U.S.”

“It’s also appropriate since she was unable under the law to argue that any of her leaks were justified in the public interest, nor did the government have to show that a specific harm resulted from her leaks,” PoKempner declared.

Manning has urged Obama to commute her sentence so she can have a “first chance to live a real, meaningful life.” She believes this may be “the last real chance” to make a case to go home “for a very long time.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."