I honestly don't understand, she leaked hundreds of thousands of US government documents to WikiLeaks when she was a Private in the U.S. military, and she's going to be released on 17 May 2017 after serving seven years in prison.

That's seven years for leaking classified government documents that could cause a threat to national security.

After all this why did President Obama just let her go?
Am I missing something, or is there a bigger picture?

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    Comments are for helping to clarifying the question. If you would like to provide an answer, please write one.
    – Philipp
    Jan 18, 2017 at 8:35
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    Re: "I mean, I honestly... Am I missing...": Not to worry, provided a question is clearly stated and useful, the prior knowledge of the questioner is usually irrelevant.
    – agc
    Jan 18, 2017 at 23:25
  • "documents that could cause a threat to national security." - is the threat, other than bad PR or evidence of illegal government actions, something that is assumed, or has been demonstrated? If it's assumed, maybe that's where the disconnect is happening. Not everything that is kept secret is done so because disclosure would endanger lives. Sep 20, 2017 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


"Just let her go" is not exactly true; she served seven years in prison and wasn't pardoned, rather her 35 year sentence was reduced to 7 years. A subtle but important difference.

At any rate, as near as I can find Obama administration has released no detailed statements about this, but this is the petition Manning sent, which was granted. I feel it's safe to assume that this action was based on the arguments presented there.

This is a – hopefully accurate – summary of the points put forth in the petition, in the order they first appear in the document:

  • Well-intentioned – Manning has "never made excuses for disclosing classified materials" and "accepted responsibility". The disclosure was well-intentioned with the intention of "raising public awareness about issues she found concerning, including the impact of war on innocent victims", and she "did not intend to harm the interests of the United States or harm any service members".

  • Unusual long sentence – The 35 year sentence is "off the charts for an offense of this nature" and "any other civilized judicial system would have resulted in at most a few years of prison time".

    This extraordinary long sentence was due to the "public spectacle" and "great scrutiny" of the trail, and because the military court was not intended and is not equipped to deal with these sort of cases due to lack of sentencing guidelines and historical precedent.

    There have been only a few similar cases, with sentence of one to three years.

  • Confused young adult – "as a young [transgender] adult, attempting to make sense of her feelings and place in the world [..] compounded by [..] the military [..] not [being] a welcome place for transgender". This, it is argued, led to "a detrimental effect on her mentally[,] and emotionally leading to the disclosures".

  • Difficult time in prison – Manning has spent a long time battling with the military over her gender dysphoria, which the military "fierily fought", such as "[her] request to use her legal name, [..] refer to her with female pronouns". "This fight has taken a great toll on her".

    In her personal statement she goes into more detail, ending with "The bottom-line is this: I need help and I am still not getting it. 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."

  • Solitary confinement – "consider Ms. Manning's prison conditions, including her significant time spent in solitary confinement, as a reason for reducing her sentence to time served".

    She was held in solitary confinement for "nearly a year" while awaiting trail, and again since her attempted suicide she has been placed in confinement. This "conflicts with the President's mandate to halt the use of solitary confinement for any purpose".

  • Second chance – "I have serviced a sufficiently long sentence [..] I am merely asking for a first change to live my life outside the USDB as the person I was born to be".

  • Not all charges were valid – Morris Davis argues that some of the charges were based on the disclosure of Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs); but much of this information was already on the internet or other public ally available resources. In addition these DABs "were unreliable and had little value".

It's not clear which of these arguments had the greater weight in Obama's reasoning, but there's a good chance that "unusual long sentence" is the most important one.

As any summary, it omits some of the nuances, subtleties, and examples. I encourage you to read the full statement.

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    Before commenting: remember this is not a discussion forum! I have tried to make a factual summary of the arguments used, and refused the temptation to inject my personal opinion. Feel free to disagree with factual inaccuracies, but this is not the place to hold a general discussion about the topic.
    – user11249
    Jan 18, 2017 at 6:45
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    These aren't facts. These are opinions of the defense counsel presented as facts and are propaganda.
    – user9790
    Jan 18, 2017 at 14:59
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    @KDog Yes. And that was the question; (paraphrased) "what were the reasons Obama did what he did". As mentioned, I avoided injecting my own personal opinions (which are probably not what you think they are) and kept the entire thing a summary of the arguments used. The reader can make up their own mind.
    – user11249
    Jan 18, 2017 at 16:20
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    @KDog To repeat: I have merely presented the arguments made by Manning, deciding on the value of them is up to the reader. I have very carefully avoided injecting opinion as this is such a controversial topic, and have little interest engaging in discussion here. The horse is dead; stop beating it. If you have a different outlook on this then I encourage you to write up an answer of your own.
    – user11249
    Jan 18, 2017 at 20:05
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    I am ex-military. For whatever it is worth, the word around the campfire was Fort Leavenworth is a much more unpleasant place than civilian prisons. It is allegedly a very strict environment and there are reports that even little things like cursing at a guard will get you solitary confinement.
    – Beo
    Mar 6, 2017 at 15:24

He believed the sentence was excessive, and justice had already been served.

Conveniently, Obama gave a press conference on the day this question was asked, and he answered this very question himself.

Q: Are you concerned, Mr. President, that commuting Chelsea Manning's sentence will send a message that leaking classified material will not generate a tough sentence to groups like WikiLeaks?

He said that he believes Manning's sentence was excessive and she had already served enough time.

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 disproportional -- 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.

He also said he recognizes that Manning was a whistleblower, not a spy, (he just chooses to use a law designed to prosecute enemy spies against whistleblowers,) and that the commuted sentence is sufficient to deter whistleblowing.

And, you know, I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent that when it comes to our national security, that wherever possible, we need folks who may have legitimate concerns about the actions of government or their superiors or the agencies in which they work, that they try to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the whistleblower protections that have been put in place.

35 years was always excessive for whistleblowing

The question suggests that 7 years is too light of a sentence, that leaking classified information deserves a heavier sentence like the original 35 years. I think this needs to be addressed as well.

Whistleblowing has never warranted a sentence of more than a few years. Manning's sentence is highly unusual, and it is the inevitable result of prosecuting whistleblowers with the Espionage Act, a law meant to prosecute spies, who typically receive much more severe sentences.

Whereas actually spying for foreign powers can result in much lengthier sentences like Manning's original sentence, whistleblowing like what Manning did typically results in far more lenient sentences. Fortunately for us, Obama has prosecuted quite a few whistleblowers and media leakers, so there are a lot of data points to support this.

Still others, such as John Brennan and Leon Panetta, leaked information to the media but were never even charged with a crime.

So at 7 years, she already served far more time than any other whistleblower. It should also be noted that Sterling never pled guilty, or "took responsibility for his crime", yet his sentence was still a tenth of Manning's original sentence, and still half as long as her commuted sentence.

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    Please note that Manning was not a whistleblower and that's why this has been so controversial. While Manning exposed some problematic things the government was doing, he did so by bulk dumping nearly 500,000 classified documents. Many people who had helped the US Military in Afghanistan and Pakistan were exposed, as well as military secrets not tied to any controversies were dumped, en masse. Had Manning simply tried to expose the controversial programs the controversy would not be so severe
    – Machavity
    Mar 7, 2017 at 2:34
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    Of course she is a whistleblower. She did what all whistleblowers do, deliver information to the media to expose hidden wrongdoing. Exposing secrets is the point. As for the decision to dump everything en masse, that was Wikileaks' decision and it was forced, not Manning's. Why did Manning go to Wikileaks? Because the WaPo and NYT both refused her. You are confusing facts and distorting common language beyond all reasonable meaning such that not even Obama agrees with you.
    – J Doe
    Mar 7, 2017 at 20:17
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    No, the point of whistleblowing is to stop specific behavior. How does exposing the names of people who aided us in Pakistan do that? Or is collateral damage OK, as long as some bad things get exposed? Your statement deflecting blame to Wikileaks makes no sense. Wikileaks had nothing to leak without Manning (saying it was their choice is a dodge). Finally, Obama clearly doesn't agree with your definition or he would have pardoned Edward Snowden (who did the same thing) as well.
    – Machavity
    Mar 7, 2017 at 20:45
  • @Machavity - if that was the only information exposed, you'd have a point. There was evidence of actions that were illegal under US or international law that the US government was denying had happened. That's pretty much the definition of whislte-blowing. The problem is Manning was so indiscriminant in disclosure that anyone could find parts of what was disclosed that supported their point of view about it. Sep 20, 2017 at 22:03

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