A mere three days before his handover to President Trump, former US President Obama signed off on a final round of sentence commutations and pardons. During his eight-year administration, Obama delivered 1385 commutations and pardons – a record his staff described as evidence of ‘remarkable mercy’.
The highest profile of these final commutations was that delivered to Chelsea Manning, a former army intelligence operative found guilty of offences under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 35 year’s imprisonment. Manning will be released in May 2017, after seven years in military prison.
The factual basis for Manning’s conviction is now infamous worldwide. She leaked over 700,000 items of intelligence data to WikiLeaks – the whistle-blower website established by Australian national Julian Assange. Many of these were published online, including videos that showed US military strikes causing civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning, came out as a transgender woman during her imprisonment. Serious concerns were held for her health, particularly as she had attempted suicide twice in the past year and remained confined in a men’s prison. News of her impending release was welcomed by human rights organisations and Manning’s supporters, who regard her as a human rights defender.
It appears that Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence was influenced by awareness of risks to her health and campaigning on her behalf. In a public statement, the White House drew a stark contrast between its view of Manning and its position on another well-known whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. Snowden is currently in exile in Russia, having fled the US after leaking classified intelligence material while working as a CIA contractor. While Manning had faced trial and imprisonment following her conviction,
Mr Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.
Nevertheless, mercy for Manning drew calls for similar approaches to the cases of Snowden, currently in exile in Russia, and Assange, currently under effective house arrest in the London embassy of Ecuador.
Considering earlier public comments from now-President Trump, calls for a pardon for Snowden are unlikely to find favour with the new Administration.
Snowden is a spy who has caused great damage to the U.S. A spy in the old days, when our country was respected and strong, would be executed
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2014
And further, it seems unlikely that Russia will surrender Snowden to the US for such a potential fate. Indeed, as Manning’s sentence was being commuted, Snowden’s Russian protection visa was extended.
After writing on this case for The Conversation, I was interviewed for English language radio in South Korea. The interview gave me a glimpse into how news of Manning’s sentence commutation was received in another country, with its own distinctive views on relations between the US, Russia and the international community.
I was asked whether Russian President Putin may have extended Snowden’s asylum to exact revenge on President Obama, and whether Snowden may be being used by Russian intelligence to undermine American interests. I declined to answer those questions, not claiming any expertise in what is motivating Russia’s relationship with Snowden.
However, I was able to respond to the journalist’s question regarding the differential treatment of Manning and Snowden, by highlighting differences between pardon and commutation, trial in a US court and exile overseas, and degrees of damage caused by the release of more or less ‘top-secret’ intelligence.
My South Korean interviewer was also interested in whether Russia might ‘gift’ Snowden to incoming President Trump. Again, this was beyond my expertise. However, on a parallel note, it was interesting to follow Assange’s offers to surrender himself to the US Department of Justice in return for Manning’s release. This move, as yet unrealised, has been cited as evidence of an alliance of sorts between Trump and Assange. It is well known that the WikiLeaks hacking of Democratic Party emails during the recent US Presidential campaign boosted the Trump campaign.
As has become rapidly clear, only the bravest of commentators would confidently predict the future actions of the Trump administration. I’ll go so far as to say that Trump seems unlikely to act as a great defender of press freedom. But then, despite celebrating its record of clemency, the previous White House led the way in criminalising whistle-blowing and shielding its military activities from public scrutiny.