By reducing the sentence of former soldier Manning who sent documents to WikiLeaks, the outgoing president took a rare step in favor of whistleblowers.
By announcing on Tuesday, Jan. 17 that he had commuted the prison sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, Barack Obama achieved a tour de force, eliciting the “sincere thanks” of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the existence of a mass surveillance program at the National Security Agency.
The event is even more remarkable given that the Obama administration took the most severe position in U.S. history in responding to whistleblowers, with active prosecutions of a dozen people who leaked documents to the press. But more than the number of prosecutions, it was their nature that made the president subject to vigorous criticism. Manning, Snowden and his predecessor, Thomas Drake, were all charged under the Espionage Act, a particularly severe law conceived, as its name indicates, to prosecute espionage.
Enacted in 1917, this law notably provides that the act of revealing confidential documents in the public interest does not constitute an acceptable defense, and its use thus serves to negate even the concept of a “whistleblower.” Snowden never denied that he had acted illegally – but has always explained that he acted for the common good. Amnesty International, which has led several campaigns seeking pardons for Manning and Snowden, said the law is “outdated and ill-equipped to deal with the circumstances” of these documents. Numerous civil rights activists and nongovernmental organizations have been calling for the repeal of this law for years.
A Symbolic but Limited Action
Three days before the end of his term, did Obama decide, as Wired magazine put it, on a “ceasefire in his war on leakers?” For many activists defending whistleblowers, the clemency accorded to Manning is a step in the right direction, but comes too late, and still represents too little. “The war on whistleblowers must be stopped now and cannot continue under the next presidency,” lawyers for WikiLeaks said in a press release.*
Donald Trump, and the Republican Party in general, have traditionally defended harsh sanctions against whistleblowers, including in the military and in the intelligence community – but some Republican politicians changed their minds after the publication by WikiLeaks of the Democratic Party’s internal documents. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose emails were published by WikiLeaks in 2008 and who has described Julian Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” even apologized to Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, thanking him for having “finally opened people’s eyes” to the Democratic Party.
Intelligence Agency Powers Strengthened
Above all, defenders of individual liberties note that Obama refused to learn from the revelations of Thomas Drake, Snowden and Manning. After the disclosure of the existence of the NSA’s web surveillance programs, the president successfully implemented intelligence reforms, but they were deemed largely inadequate by privacy advocates. And a few days before commuting Manning’s sentence, Obama again extended the powers of intelligence agencies by authorizing the NSA to share more information with the 16 other U.S. agencies.
On Jan. 17, the outgoing president also extended clemency to another “whistleblower,” albeit someone not as well known as Manning: James Cartwright, a retired U.S. Army general. Cartwright had spoken to journalists about a secret Iranian nuclear program, and subsequently lied to a federal investigation commission about the leaks concerning the program. He finally pleaded guilty, admitting that he had spoken with journalists, but explaining that he had simply tried to convince the journalists not to publish their information on that file.
According to The New York Times, Obama made his decision in part due to Cartwright’s explanations, and in part because one of the journalists that had revealed the existence of the program had written to him to confirm that he knew of the file’s existence before speaking to the general. The journalist risked a light sentence – a few hundred hours of community service – and was to be convicted in January. In contrast to Manning, whose punishment was mitigated, Cartwright benefited from a complete pardon. But Cartwright was not just any general. A member of the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, he was known as the president’s “favorite general.”
*Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.