Before leaving office, President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of former Army soldier Chelsea (Bradley) Manning. At the time, Manning was serving a sentence of 35 years for leaking classified material to WikiLeaks in 2010. This material was subsequently published by WikiLeaks, embarrassing the US government and exposing several previously undocumented war crimes that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The President’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence was extremely controversial. The verdict was made over the objection of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, while other military and government officials quickly criticized Obama’s pronouncement. Just today, President Trump referred to Manning as an “ungrateful traitor” who should have never been released from prison on Twitter.
The Manning decision was and continues to be extremely emotional – especially for those in or associated with the US military. Many believe that Manning aided and abetted the enemy by leaking sensitive documents and put US and foreign personnel at risk.
While I certainly understand this perspective, I believe that President Obama made the right decision and that his critics are letting their emotions get in the way of the facts of this case. To be clear, I believe Manning did commit a crime and should have gone to jail for his actions. That said, the 35-year term was wildly excessive – Manning has served enough time and deserves to be free.
Here’s a very abbreviated history of Manning’s life before, during, and after her time in the army up to her arrest and sentence:
- Manning had a troubled upbringing including a broken home, homelessness, and mental health issues.
- After enlisting and joining the Army in 2007 and being sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Manning was sent to the discharge unit after only about six weeks. Reports indicate that Manning struggled with basic training, was perpetually bullied, and was belligerent to officers.
- Rather than a discharge, Manning was sent to Fort Huachuca (Arizona) where she received training and attained a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance.
- While at Fort Drum (NY), Manning developed a relationship with individuals in Boston who were part of a computer hacking group. During this timeframe, Manning also suffered through and displayed mental health issues and was referred to Army mental health services.
- Manning was transferred to an Army intelligence unit in Iraq in 2009. According to an army statement, she was transferred to Iraq despite the misgivings of two Army officers who thought she might be a risk to herself and others.
- In Iraq, Manning had to resume a closeted lifestyle in order to avoid being discharged while working long hours, often alone. During this timeframe, she also was reprimanded often by superiors and in one incident, had to be physically restrained during a meeting. Manning posted on Facebook that she felt alone and disillusioned.
- In 2010, Manning downloaded 400,000 documents and saved them on a CD-RW disk that was labelled “Lady Gaga.” Manning reached out to legitimate media outlets but when they showed no interest, she contacted WikiLeaks. Some of these documents and videos, including the now infamous “collateral murder” video of a US helicopter attack, were subsequently published.
- In a later incident in Baghdad, Manning appeared to have a mental breakdown in which she seemed suicidal and violent. Her superiors recommended discharge.
Manning also reached out to several people about leaking the confidential documents, including famed hacker Adrian Lamo. After some personal strife about what to do, Lamo contacted the authorities. Manning was arrested in 2010 and detained for several years before pleading guilty in 2013. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
As I see it, US Army negligence was a major factor in Chelsea Manning’s ability to perpetrate this crime in several ways:
- Manning demonstrated behavioral and mental health problems at Fort Leonard Hood, Fort Drum, and again in Iraq. Her superior officers had ample opportunity to understand that she might be a security risk who needed further treatment. They did not take the appropriate actions.
- I’m fairly sure that Manning’s participation in the hacker club in Boston was known to the military. If not, Army officials should have known since Manning discussed this openly in online forums.
- Manning’s continued mental health episodes should have persuaded the military to monitor Manning more carefully. It failed to do so.
- Manning’s downloading of hundreds of thousands of classified documents should have led to some type of trigger of anomalous behavior. This technology was certainly available in the mid-2000s. Lacking this, analysts could have had some type of enforced quota on the number of documents they could access at one time. Neither of these elementary controls were in place.
- Manning’s system was connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network Router (SIPRNet) and Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS). Systems connected to these highly-classified networks should not be able to save files to CD burners, USB drives, or any other type of portable mass storage device. This type of control was not in place.
- From a physical security perspective, Manning should not have been allowed to bring a CD into a highly-sensitive site without proper inspection. This didn’t happen.
Finally, it was WikiLeaks, and not Manning, that decided to release documents without redacting sensitive data, and this careless decision caused many at WikiLeaks to abandon Julian Assange. This doesn’t let Manning off the hook but I felt it was worth noting.
Yes, Manning was guilty of a crime, but basic security controls and sound HR decisions could have prevented this major breach. As far as I know, no one else was ever held accountable as well. Based upon all of this, I truly believe that President Obama’s commutation was a just and appropriate action.