Why Chelsea Manning's Commutation Likely Won't Mean Leniency for Edward Snowden

A look at what differentiates the cases.

ByADAM KELSEY
January 18, 2017, 6:44 PM

— -- President Obama's commutation of Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence Tuesday indirectly called attention to the legal status of former National Security contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a collection of classified information in 2013. Since then, Snowden has been living in Russia where he was granted political asylum while wanted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of violating the Espionage Act.

Manning, who is currently imprisoned at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, has been incarcerated since her arrest in 2010 for turning over military and diplomatic information to Wikileaks. At the time, Manning, who was assigned male at birth, was known as Bradley. Obama's decision Tuesday will end her sentence on May 17.

While the crimes committed by Manning and alleged violations of law by Snowden appear to be similar, government officials, including Obama, have previously signaled that the cases are being considered separately and on their own merits, and that clemency for Manning would not necessarily signal leniency for Snowden.

At the White House press briefing last Friday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest offered a comparison between Manning and Snowden in response to a question from a reporter, saying there is a “stark difference” between the two.

“Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” said Earnest.

The sentiment was echoed by Obama Wednesday at his final press conference as president.

“It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute, and not pardon, her sentence,” said Obama. “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served.”

On Snowden, Earnest noted that “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”

Snowden’s movements in the aftermath of his leaks in 2013 appear to be the primary sticking point in a possible appeal for clemency. After taking what officials believe to be between 200,000 and 1.7 million NSA documents and releasing a portion to journalists, Snowden flew to Hong Kong. From there he travelled to Russia, reportedly intending to continue on to Central or South America, having been offered asylum by Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela, but remained in Russia after receiving temporary asylum there.

At that point, then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “We very clearly believe that Mr. Snowden ought to be returned to the United States to face the charges that have been set against him, through an open and clear legal process that we have in this country.”

Conversely, after former hacker Adrian Lamo turned over transcripts of internet conversations with Manning to defense officials, she was arrested, pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges levied against her and was convicted by trial on additional charges.

With military prison sentences longer than 30 years eligible for parole after 10 and Manning having been credited for an additional 1,294 days, she would have been eligible for a review after seven years even had Obama not taken action.

In a November interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, Obama indicated that the justice process played a role in his consideration of pardons and commutations, saying, in regard to Snowden, that he “can't pardon somebody who hasn't gone before a court and presented themselves.”

“At the point at which Mr. Snowden wants to present himself before the legal authorities and make his arguments or have his lawyers make his arguments, then I think those issues come into play,” said Obama.

At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Earnest rendered the point moot, explaining, “Mr. Snowden has not filed paperwork to seek clemency from the administration.” Manning's attorneys submitted a petition to the secretary of the army and the president's pardon attorney in November.

Snowden took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon after the White House announced Manning’s commutation, writing to Manning, “In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer!” and adding in an additional tweet, “Let it be said here in earnest, with good heart: Thanks, Obama.” He did not comment on his own status.

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