Editorial Board

Obama's Clemency for Manning Sets Back Justice

Her crimes weren't as great as Edward Snowden's, but that shouldn't have been enough for a commuted sentence.

That uniform matters.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Chelsea Manning may be getting out of prison in a few months, but the effects of President Barack Obama's commutation of her sentence will last far longer. In this case, Obama made a serious error of judgment.

Proponents of clemency for Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst convicted in 2013 of leaking classified material, make plenty of reasonable arguments: Her 35-year sentence was far longer than that of most other leakers; in spilling national security documents, she felt she was serving the cause of justice; she stood trial and accepted her sentence, unlike National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden; she showed repentance; and she suffered mental torment while behind bars.

They are not without merit. But these arguments misunderstand the difference between military justice and its civilian counterpart. Like all service members, Manning had taken an oath to defend the country, which she voluntarily broke when she released more than 700,000 files, some of which endangered Americans abroad and foreigners cooperating with counterterrorism efforts. Given the scale of her crime, her repentance counts for little.

And, yes, 35 years is a long sentence even by military standards, considering several generals who were careless with secrets have received little more than slaps on the wrist. Yet Manning was eligible for parole in three years, and the board would have been allowed to consider her medical condition and psychological state. Many experts in military law assumed she would never serve her full sentence. (By comparison, Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence official who leaked secrets to Israel, was behind bars for 30 years.) 

As for Manning not fleeing the country, she was arrested before she had any chance to go on the lam. And it shouldn’t be a factor that she became a cause celebre in LGBTQ circles, with a host of civil-liberties advocates and celebrities clamoring for her release.

In the end, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Manning was set on the road to freedom in large part simply because she is not Edward Snowden. By not letting military justice take its course, Obama has now drawn a line between "bad" and "not so bad" leakers. And while it's true that Snowden's actions were far more harmful, this sort of arbitrariness is no way to run a military or civilian justice system in an age when Americans are increasingly at risk from the digitized release of top national security secrets.

The Constitution gives the president the awesome power to grant pardons and commutations to convicted criminals. It can be a useful check against egregious miscarriages of justice. But the power of the pardon can also be easily abused, especially on behalf of wealthy or influential supporters. All the more reason for presidents to use it wisely -- and sparingly.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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