We are elated that President Obama has officially commuted the unjust thirty-five year prison sentence of brave whistleblower Chelsea Manning. She will now walk free on May 17th, instead of 2045.
It’s hard to quantify the suffering that was forced upon Chelsea for her “crime” of informing the American public about what its government does behind closed doors. She was tortured in pre-trial confinement, given a sentence orders of magnitude higher than any other leaker in history, punished more for trivial rule violations, and then put in solitary confinement for attempting suicide.
Today, we celebrate this act of mercy by President Obama. He did the right thing and he should be commended. As Manning’s attorney at the ACLU, Chase Strangio, said today: “This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life, and we are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many.”
But it’s also clear that whistleblowers acting in the public interest should not be beholden to the president’s whims. Instead, fair laws should ensure strong protections for whistleblowers who shed light on human rights abuses, war crimes, corruption, and government deception.
Chelsea Manning was tried under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 to prosecute individuals acting on behalf of foreign enemies. The law does not consider either the motivation for an individual who passes on documents nor the ramifications of the data disclosure.
This meant that during her court martial, Chelsea was barred from explaining why she leaked documents to WikiLeaks. Instead she was treated the same as if she’d stolen documents and given them to a foreign adversary. The defense was also unable to discuss the (likely, minimal) negative foreign policy outcomes of her leaks, nor tell the judge about the incredible positive effects the leaks had on the U.S. public’s knowledge of its own government.
The prosecution of Chelsea Manning was part of a larger campaign by President Obama to crack down on whistleblowers and the press, including government employees like Chelsea and government contractors like Edward Snowden, and spying on journalists. Those powers are now in the hands of Donald Trump, who has already called for more leak investigations despite not even taking office yet.
Until the Espionage Act is reformed and strong protections for whistleblowers are enacted, those who follow in Chelsea’s footsteps may face similar persecution.
But there is reason to be optimistic: The outpouring of support that Chelsea Manning received worldwide shows that when a whistleblower speaks out about wrongdoing, she won’t be facing government retribution alone.
Since the founding of Freedom of the Press Foundation, we have championed Chelsea’s cause. When the military refused to release transcripts of her trial—with your help—we crowdfunded over $100,000 to send in professional stenographers to sit in the galleys and type out every word, so that journalists anywhere could report on it. When her legal team was deep in debt, we raised over $160,000 so that her attorneys could keep fighting for her. The outpouring of love from her supporters, in both cases, was incredible to see, and we are honored to have played a small part in advocating for her cause.
The fight for whistleblower’s rights certainly has a long way to go, but today we celebrate for Chelsea. We could not be happier and cannot wait to see her on the day she walks free.