Politics & Policy

The Injustice of Commuting Manning’s Sentence

Manning outside a courtroom at Fort Meade in 2012. (Reuters photo: Jose Luis Magana)

Barack Obama is nothing if not consistent. He is lenient with American enemies foreign and domestic. Make no mistake, his decision to commute the remainder of Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s jail term sends the message that soldiers can betray their nation — without regard to the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms — yet still expect to receive compassion from their government, so long as they’re “whistleblowing” on an unpopular war.

It’s important to properly understand Manning’s case. Contrary to media framing, this was not a conventional “leak” prosecution. Instead, Manning is responsible for one of the largest security breaches in American military history. He downloaded, copied, and passed along to WikiLeaks several hundred thousand files that comprehensively detailed American military and diplomatic activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

These files not only disclosed the identities of individuals working with Americans and spotlighted vital and sensitive classified diplomatic efforts, they provided a comprehensive overview of American military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan — including detailed descriptions of American tactics and strategies, right down to descriptions of the vehicles used in various missions, the purpose of the missions, and the targets of operations. In other words, to borrow a football analogy, it was like handing the opposition your playbook — except with lives on the line.

During Manning’s trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that al-Qaeda was not only gleeful about the leak (one of its spokesmen said, “By the grace of God, the enemy’s interests are today spread all over the place”), Osama bin Laden himself “asked for and received” the “Afghanistan battlefield reports that WikiLeaks published.”

Moreover, unlike most leak cases, which involve the dissemination of specific, limited amounts of information, Manning’s security breach was nothing more and nothing less than a document dump. Manning, a low-level soldier, did not and could not comb through his hundreds of thousands of documents to mitigate any possible harm or prevent any possible loss of life. Instead, he transmitted them en masse for publication.

Manning claims he disclosed the documents for the purpose of stimulating “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” But that’s not his decision to make. He disclosed the nation’s secrets without even knowing whether those secrets could hurt or possibly kill the men and women with whom he served or the men and women who worked with American forces. His actions were worse than reckless. He acted with callous disregard and utter indifference to human life.

No matter how troubled he was during his Iraq deployment, he was fully aware of the laws and regulations that governed his conduct, and he knowingly and deliberately violated those laws.

His defenders like to point out that the prosecution didn’t prove that anyone died directly as a result of Manning’s security breach. Yet as our own Andrew McCarthy notes today, “in cases involving classified information, the government frequently cannot reveal — let alone prosecute — the damage done.” The very act of revealing the extent of the damage can disclose more classified information. In fact, the damage is still being done — as the enemy continues to use the information about American tactics to adjust its own operations and methods.

Since his arrest and imprisonment, Manning has disclosed that he is transgender and now goes by the name “Chelsea.” This has stirred up considerable sympathy for him from some in the media. The New York Times even phrased the commutation as having “rescued” Manning from an “uncertain future as a transgender woman incarcerated at the men’s military prison at Fort Leavenworth.”

One does not have to engage in yet another wearying debate about gender identity to understand that Manning — regardless of his self-identification — betrayed his nation. No matter how troubled he was during his Iraq deployment, he was fully aware of the laws and regulations that governed his conduct, and he knowingly and deliberately violated those laws.

Finally, it is important to understand that Manning had already been treated with considerable mercy before Obama commuted his sentence. Manning was convicted on 17 counts of various violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, pled guilty to three, and was acquitted of two. Prosecutors sought a 60-year prison term, but the judge imposed a term of 35 years only, and he would have been eligible for parole after serving ten full years. This was itself lenient, but not lenient enough for the Obama administration.

Manning will soon walk free, ultimately serving a sentence no longer than that of a garden-variety domestic felon. In the meantime, across the globe, our enemies better understand our military tactics, friends who’ve risked their lives to fight jihad live in fear, and diplomatic trust is breached. Manning’s commutation was worse than foolish. It was unjust, and it broke faith with America’s warriors. The price paid for betrayal proved to be low indeed. 

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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