Obama commutes jail term of whistleblower Chelsea Manning
In one of his final acts before leaving office, President Barack Obama on Tuesday shortened the prison sentence of former US military analyst Chelsea Manning, who passed a massive cache of classified materials to WikiLeaks.
Manning was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2010 when she gave the anti-secrecy group a trove of diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts.
A White House official said there was no connection between Manning's commutation and renewed US government concern about WikiLeaks in last year's presidential election, or a promise by its founder Julian Assange to accept extradition if Manning was freed.
Manning has been a focus of a worldwide debate on government secrecy since she provided more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks - for which she was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison and now reduced to seven years.
Wikileaks also published emails in the weeks leading up to the 8 November presidential election that US intelligence agencies believe came from a Russian intelligence hack of the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of leading Democrats, as part of a campaign to influence the election.
A WikiLeaks tweet on Tuesday quoted Assange as saying: "Thank you to everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning's clemency. Your courage and determination made the impossible possible."
Assange has been holed up at Ecuador's London embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for the investigation of rape allegations, which he denies. He has said he fears extradition from Sweden to the United States, where there is an open criminal investigation into the activities of WikiLeaks.
"The president's decision to grant clemency and offer commutation to Chelsea Manning was not influenced in any way by public comments from Assange or the WikiLeaks organisation," a White House official said on a conference call with reporters.
Manning, formerly known as US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, was born male but revealed after being convicted of espionage that she identifies as a woman. The White House said her sentence would end on 17 May this year.
Private Manning was first arrested in May 2010 and ultimately charged with 22 offences, including having "wantonly [caused] to be published on the internet intelligence belonging to the US government, having knowledge that intelligence published on the internet is accessible to the enemy,” an offence that could have potentially provoked the death penalty.
Manning, who twice tried to kill herself last year and has struggled to cope as a transgender woman in the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, men's military prison, accepted responsibility for leaking the material.
Among the hundreds of thousands of documents released by Manning to WikiLeaks was the now infamous “collateral murder” video which appeared to show gunsight footage from a US Apache helicopter as it fired upon a group of Iraqi men, killing as many as 18 people including two correspondents from Reuters.
Her attorney said her sentence exceeded international legal norms.
Manning's clemency was criticised by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who said Manning endangered troops, intelligence officers, diplomats and allies with the leaks.
"We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr," Cotton said.
But civil rights groups praised the move, calling it overdue.
"Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result, her own human rights have been violated by the US government for years," said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Obama also pardoned retired US Marine Corps general James Cartwright who pleaded guilty in October to making false statements to the FBI during an investigation into leaks of classified information.
Manning was among 209 commutations granted by Obama on Tuesday and Cartwright was among 64 pardons.
Most of the commutations were a part of Obama's effort to reduce the number of people serving long sentences for non-violent drug offences. The White House official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Obama would likely announce more such commutations on Thursday.