First, Manning’s sentence was grossly disproportionate. Prosecuting leakers is very rare, although Obama went after whistleblowers to an unprecedented extent. The seven people prosecuted for leaking information to the media by Obama constitute 70 percent of the people prosecuted for this crime in the history of the United States. And there is certainly no precedent for anything remotely resembling a 35-year sentence for leaking information to the media. Sentencing Manning to time served would have been towards the harsh end of what was potentially justified. Arbitrarily singling out Manning for an extraordinarily harsh punishment is exactly the kind of injustice the commutation power should be used to redress.
And, second, not only has Manning been in prison much longer than her offense merited, the conditions she was subjected to in prison were a vile abuse of human rights. She was held in solitary confinement for extended periods, treatment that amounts to torture in practice, even if it’s not defined as such in law. She remained in a man’s prison despite announcing her gender identity as a woman in 2013. She detailed the effects of this treatment in her letter to Obama: “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.” She was actually punished for her suicide attempt with more time in solitary confinement, an act of astonishing cruelty.
The disproportionate length of the sentence given to Manning and the cruelty she was subjected to in prison make commuting her sentence a no-brainer.
This doesn’t mean that Obama’s opponents didn’t attack it. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called Obama’s commutation “outrageous,” asserting that “President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.” The idea that seven years of hard prison time in often deplorable conditions doesn’t constitute “accountability” reflects an appalling lack of human decency.
Let me to pause here to note that 1)Paul Ryan wants to take health insurance away from 32 million people to fund massive upper-class tax cuts and 2)many of the same media figures who consider Hillary Clinton’s email server management a scandal worthy of saturation coverage slobber over Paul Ryan as a Serious Policy Wonk with a sincere commitment to helping the poor.
The harsh treatment given to Manning is particularly hard to justify given that most of the people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 and all of the people responsible for the torture of prisoners under the Bush administration got away scot-free. While it’s too late for many of the worst villains of the first decade of the millennium to be held accountable, it’s important that other injustices be addressed.
I think there’s a solid argument that the pass given to torturers and financial scammers should mean that Manning shouldn’t haven’t had been prosecuted even if charging her is defensible in isolation. But the commutation isn’t even a close call.