In Defense of the Chelsea Manning Commutation

Those who worry that it undermines state secrets would do better to start addressing the core reasons that the classification system is losing legitimacy.

Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former Army analyst who violated several laws that forbid disclosing facts that have been declared classified by the U.S. government. Laws against revealing state secrets are intended to protect national security and the safety of the men and women who serve in the military and intelligence services. Those are worthy aims and the laws are defensible in principle.

In practice, the legitimacy of state-secrets laws has been undermined by their frequent abuse.

Over-classification is epidemic.

Even the highest-ranking national security officials routinely leak classified information with impunity in order to advance their political and bureaucratic agendas.

Whistleblowers who commit minor or even debatable violations of classification laws are persecuted through their wanton abuse, even when there is no evidence they did any harm.

The classification system often hides egregious wrongdoing from the public.

And elites use our system of state secrets to improperly keep hugely consequential matters, like surveillance policy, beyond the realm of democratic debate.

For all these reasons, people like Manning, who leaked classified information in an earnest and successful attempt to expose wrongdoing, have attracted many defenders, despite breaking laws that ought to exist in some form. These defenders believe the years Manning spent in military prisons for her leaks were adequate if not excessive; that imprisoning her for the full duration of her 35-year sentence when she represents no further threat to the public would be an egregious miscarriage of justice; and that Obama, who has prosecuted a selective war on whistleblowers, acted justly in this instance, showing mercy and a sense of proportion.

The grant of clemency has nevertheless sparked harsh denunciations.

Senator John McCain, who forgave former CIA Director David Petraeus almost immediately for leaking classified information to his mistress in the service of a vanity project, declared of Manning, who attempted suicide twice during seven years in prison, including stints in solitary confinement: “Her dishonor will last forever.”

Paul Ryan, who has never called for Petraeus or John Brennan or Leon Panetta or any Bush administration official to spend even a day in jail for mishandling classified information, declared, “Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes,” as if seven years in prison in a country where torturers were never even indicted for literal war crimes doesn’t count as accountability.

At National Review, David French, another critic of the commutation, declared that “armies depend on bonds of trust,” and Manning “knowingly and intentionally placed lives in danger by indiscriminately placing our nation’s secrets in the public domain.” But Manning did not intend to put lives in danger and her leaks weren’t directly tied to any deaths. What’s more, as Glenn Greenwald noted on NPR, “she volunteered for the Iraq War believing her government’s claims about what was taking place, only to get there and see a huge range of atrocities, and she believed that the American people had a right to know what the government was actually doing.”

In other words, Manning isn’t the only one who broke a bond of trust, yet her critics seldom acknowledge the wrongdoing she uncovered or call for it to be punished.

Nor do they call for elites, or even rank-and-file soldiers who’ve done harm to America in other ways, to be punished with sentences as harsh as what Manning received. By way of comparison, Charles A. Graner was convicted of participating in the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib—breaking the law, corrupting his unit, doing incalculable damage to America’s war effort, and fueling terrorist recruitment. His motives were ignoble, his victims were indisputable and identifiable, and his actions produced zero benefit. He was sentenced to 10 years, and released from prison after 6.5 years. Neither John McCain nor Paul Ryan nor anyone at National Review objected to his release.

Commuting Manning’s sentence after seven years was, at the very least, defensible, given the seriousness of the misbehavior she exposed, the benefits of her disclosures, the comparative treatment of rank-and-file soldiers convicted of deplorable crimes, and the impunity with which elites leak classified information. Those who worry that the commutation undermines our system of state secrets would do better to start addressing the core reasons that the classification regime is losing legitimacy.