WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama on Tuesday shortened the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former US military intelligence analyst who was responsible for a 2010 leak of classified materials to anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, the biggest such breach in US history.
A White House official said there was no connection between Manning’s commutation and renewed US government concern about WikiLeaks’ actions during last year’s presidential election, or a promise by 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 – a leak for which she was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison.
Obama, in one of his final acts before leaving office, reduced her sentence to seven years, angering some Republicans.
Manning was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2010 when she gave WikiLeaks a trove of diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts that included a 2007 gunsight video of a US Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Iraq, killing a dozen people including two Reuters news staff.
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 May 17 this year.
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 – a factor that fed into Obama’s decision, a White House official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said Obama’s decision was rooted in Manning’s sentence being longer than sentences given to others who had committed comparable crimes. Obama, who leaves office on Friday and is scheduled to give his final news conference on Wednesday, is expected to discuss his decision then.
WikiLeaks also published emails in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 presidential election that US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian intelligence agencies hacked the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of leading Democrats, part of a campaign by Moscow to influence the election.
But Obama’s decision had nothing to do with the latest WikiLeaks controversy, the White House official said.
Assange has been holed up at Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for the investigation of allegations, which he denies, that he committed rape there in 2010. He has said he fears Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where there is an open criminal investigation into the activities of WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks sent a tweet quoting Assange’s attorney, Melinda Taylor, saying he would abide by his promise to accept extradition if Manning was freed. “Everything that he has said he’s standing by,” Taylor said, according to the tweet.
Civil rights groups praised the move, calling it overdue.