After a suicide attempt in July, Chelsea Manning, a 25-year-old transgender Army private responsible for the largest data leak in U.S. military history, tweeted from her cell at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to let the world know that she was happy to be alive.
By mid-October, around the start of her fourth year in a 35-year sentence without parole for providing WikiLeaks with government documents, Manning tweeted that she had been moved to solitary confinement as punishment for the suicide attempt.
As the Nov. 8 election and Jan. 20 inauguration approaches, Manning’s window for a potential early release is closing. While former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, who faces accusations of espionage for leaking secret documents, receives much of the media spotlight, writers at the Guardian, the Intercept, the New Yorker and the New Republic have called for president Barack Obama to pardon her on his way out of office.
“It should be beyond question at this point that the archive that Manning gave to WikiLeaks—and that was later published in part by the Guardian and New York Times—is one of the richest and most comprehensive databases on world affairs that has ever existed,” The Guardian’s Trevor Timm wrote. “To give you an idea: in just the past month, the New York Times has cited Manning’s state department cables in at least five different stories. And that’s almost six years after they first started making headlines.”
The information Manning provided to WikiLeaks included video footage of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter firing at what turned out to be Reuters reporters; records of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan much larger than those reported by the U.S. government, with names redacted; information on detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison and documents revealing the state department’s privately-held views of U.S. allies. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who does not face Justice Department charges for his dissemination of private documents, volunteered to turn himself in to the American government in exchange for the freedom of Manning, one of his key sources of top-secret government files.
Timm also pointed to the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder, in a May CNN podcast interview, even made the case that similar leaks by Snowden constituted a “public service.”
But some are more skeptical of what Obama’s pardon would mean for whistleblowers who break laws to publicize top-secret and potentially damaging information.
While the Washington Post, which has published leaked information from whistleblowers, did not produce an opinion on whether Manning should be pardoned, its editorial board urged Obama in September not to pardon Snowden.
“Mr. Snowden’s defenders don’t deny that he broke the law—not to mention oaths and contractual obligations—when he copied and kept 1.5 million classified documents,” the Post’s editorial board wrote, adding that Obama and the U.S. Congress responded to Snowden’s revelations describing the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance with “corrective” and “necessary” legislation. The problem, the newspaper argued, was his leaking of “basically defensible international intelligence operations,” such as the NSA’s internet-monitoring program, known as PRISM.
For Manning, the question of pardoning may come down to how much the costs of her own revelations outweighed the benefits.
As the New Republic’s John Judis wrote soon after Manning’s conviction, the imprisoned Army private’s only harm to the U.S. was making its government look bad.
“Any revelation of American government misconduct is a boost to the country’s adversaries,” Judis wrote, citing examples from recent history, such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the My Lai Massacre. “But to acknowledge that is to recognize how grossly the criterion of ‘aiding the enemy’ is being misused by Obama, Holder and the military. The question isn’t if a leak unintentionally benefits adversaries (declared or undeclared), but whether, in the circumstance, it has benefited American democracy.”
Based on Obama’s previous comments, he appears to align with the view of the Post, rather than those of the writers at other major publications. He has defended his leak prosecutions—his administration has overseen nine, compared to three for all previous presidents—and was caught on film in 2011 saying that Manning “broke the law.”
“If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law,” Obama said after a fundraising speech in San Francisco to a questioner who isn’t visible in the footage. “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate.”