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Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence in Wikileaks case

President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning on Jan. 17. Manning, who had been sentenced to 35 years in prison, is now expected to be released in May, after serving about seven years. (Jan. 18, 2017)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst convicted of turning over hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic and military documents to the website Wikileaks.

Manning, who had been sentenced to 35 years in prison, is now expected to be released in May.

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The files that Wikileaks ultimately published in conjunction with The New York Times and other newspapers prompted a debate on American foreign policy in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and revealed that in the digital age vast databases of secret government information could be turned over to the public.

Supporters praised the radical new form of transparency that Manning helped bring about, but critics said the wholesale disclosure of sensitive information put Americans' lives at risk.

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The White House did not explain the decision to grant clemency to Manning. Her commutation was announced alongside 208 others and 64 pardons. Obama granted clemency mostly to people convicted on drug offenses, but also to retired Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to making a false statement during an investigation into a disclosure of classified information.

"These 273 individuals learned that our nation is a forgiving nation," said White House counsel Neil Eggleston, "where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward."

Manning is originally from Oklahoma but lived with an aunt in Potomac while studying at Montgomery College before enlisting in the Army in 2007. Manning was prosecuted at Fort Meade over taking the documents and convicted on numerous counts, including "wrongful and wanton publication to the internet intelligence belonging to the United States."

Lawyers Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward, who represented Manning as she appealed her case, said in a statement they were delighted by the news.

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"Her 35-year sentence for disclosing information that served the public interest and never caused harm to the United States was always excessive," they said.

Manning is a transgender woman who previously served as Pfc. Bradley Manning but has been held in an all-male prison. Her supporters say she has been denied proper medical care in detention, and Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT Project who represents Manning, said the president's move "could quite literally save Chelsea's life."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, condemned the president's move to cut short Manning's sentence.

"Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets," he said in a statement. "President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won't be held accountable for their crimes."

In April 2010, Wikileaks published the first file taken by Manning — a gun-sight video from an American helicopter that it dubbed "collateral murder." It depicted aircrew chatting breezily in the midst of a 2007 attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.

The video was followed in subsequent months by military logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and thousands of State Department cables that revealed the inner workings of the United States' military and diplomatic efforts around the world.

The scale of that release prompted fierce debate about the role of whistleblowers in bringing to light wrongdoing by the government. Previous leakers were constrained in part by technology — Daniel Ellsberg had to surreptitiously photocopy each page of the Pentagon Papers — and so typically made public documents focused on a single troubling incident or episode.

The disclosures thrust Wikileaks to prominence and won it many admirers, particularly on the political left. But in recent years its image has changed. The organization's founder, Julian Assange, is living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden on sexual-assault charges. And during the 2016 presidential election, the site published emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman that the American intelligence community says were stolen by Russia.

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Assange thanked people who had campaigned on Manning's behalf in a statement posted to Wikileaks' Twitter account.

"Your courage & determination made the impossible possible," he said.

Manning was arrested in Baghdad in May 2010 and officials began scrambling to shore up the databases used by U.S. spies, soldiers and diplomats from so-called "insider threats."

But in 2013 as Manning stood trial, a new debate over secrecy was raging. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had amassed a trove of even more sensitive classified documents, fled the country and turned the files over to reporters earlier that year. Snowden's supporters also have urged Obama to grant him clemency on espionage charges he faces.

Snowden, who now lives in exile in Russia, praised the president in a Twitter post.

"Let it be said here in earnest, with good heart: Thanks, Obama," he wrote.

Obama also commuted the sentences of Adrian Scott of Baltimore and Michael Dwight Brown of Glen Burnie.

Scott, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1993 for conspiracy to distribute a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, was part of a drug ring linked to the overdose deaths of 30 people. Six others were also sentenced to life, which at the time was the largest number of defendants to receive life sentences in a single federal drug case. He will now be released in May.

Brown had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2002 for cocaine distribution. He will now be released in May.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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