- By Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University., Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
U.S. President Barack Obama has issued more commutations than the past 11 presidents combined and pardoned 212 prisoners. And, as of Tuesday, they include two of the most prominent individuals targeted in the Obama administration’s war on leakers: Chelsea Manning, a former Army soldier who leaked secret documents to Wikileaks, and retired General James Cartwright, who lied about leaking information about U.S. cyber attacks.
Just three days before leaving office, Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for leaking a huge trove of classified information to WikiLeaks in 2010. Obama also pardoned Cartwright, who had been convicted but not yet sentenced for lying to federal investigators about his conversations with reporters about Stuxnet, the covert cyber operation aimed at Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Manning, who announced after her sentencing that she is a transgender woman, has served time in a male military prison, from which she will be released in May of this year. She was known as Bradley Manning at the time of the leaks and said that her realization and struggle to process being transgender contributed to the mindset that led her to leak the documents.
WikiLeaks, through which Manning leaked the cables and documents that uncovered abuses by the U.S. military, tweeted just days earlier that editor-in-chief Julian Assange would agree to extradition to the United States if Obama were to grant Manning clemency. Assange has spent over 4 years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has continued to run Wikileaks. The United States has not yet requested extradition.
If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case https://t.co/MZU30SlfGK
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 12, 2017
Another champion of clemency for Manning: Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked documents detailing American surveillance programs the same summer Manning was sentenced.
Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning. You alone can save her life.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 11, 2017
Just because Manning has gotten clemency doesn’t mean Snowden is next. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest noted that Manning came forward and went through the military’s judicial process, while Snowden “fled into the arms of an adversary.” Snowden has been in Moscow since 2013, whereas Manning has been in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Amnesty International said after the announcement of the commutation that Manning has “been denied critical and appropriate treatment related to her gender identity at various points during her incarceration.” Amnesty also called the commutation “overdue.” (Not everyone was as pleased. In separate statements, House Speaker Paul Ryan called the commutation “just outrageous,” while Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain described it as “a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline.”)
Cartwright and Manning represent the two sides of the Obama administration’s attempt to cut down on leaks of classified information. Though campaigning on a promise of unprecedented transparency, Obama has aggressively prosecuted government officials who have disclosed classified information, carrying out more prosecutions under the Espionage Act for such crimes than all previous presidents combined.
Prior to his fall from grace, Cartwright had been regarded as a darling of Obama. Cartwright masterminded the Stuxnet program, which used a digital weapon to attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Stuxnet’s existence was first revealed not by official leak, but rather when the virus broke out of the computers controlling Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges.
The New York Times then exposed the existence of the operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and confirmed American and Israeli authorship of the virus, citing “participants in the program,” immediately setting off a Washington parlor game as to who had leaked the existence of one of the most-highly classified operations in memory. Cartwright emerged as the leading suspect, and the FBI began investigating the general in 2012.
Cartwright was beloved in the White House for a host of unpopular opinions that cut against the grain of military orthodoxy. He opposed the troop surge to Afghanistan and suggested killing the production of the F-22 fighter jet, to the dismay of defense contractors. Such contrarian opinions won him a favored position in the White House, but rubbed many in the Pentagon the wrong way.
Though Cartwright is said to have been source of the Stuxnet revelations, he wasn’t charged with disclosing classified information — but for lying to investigators about it.
Update, Jan. 17 2017, 6:07 pm ET: This piece has been updated to include quotes from separate statements issued by Paul Ryan and John McCain.
Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images