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Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's prison sentence

President Obama on Tuesday reduced the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army private convicted of leaking thousands of classified reports to WikiLeaks, to the nearly seven years she has served.

The president also pardoned retired Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, who pleaded guilty in October to lying to FBI agents after he disclosed classified information to a reporter about a covert U.S. cyberattack that targeted Iran's nuclear program.

In a last-minute flurry of orders, Obama commuted sentences for 209 people and issued 64 pardons. Aides said he will commute substantially more on Thursday, the day before he leaves office and Donald Trump is inaugurated.

The most notable omission on the list was former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia after he leaked a vast trove of highly classified documents about U.S. surveillance systems at home and abroad in 2013.

Snowden has been charged with espionage and is considered a fugitive. Supporters have launched a major effort to get the Justice Department to drop charges, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Snowden has not filed paperwork to seek clemency.

Since taking office, Obama has commuted prison sentences for 1,385 people, more than any other president and more than the last 12 presidents combined, according to the White House.

Manning, a transgender woman formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in August 2013 after a military court convicted her of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic records, cables and videos to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks in 2010. She was arrested and jailed in May of that year. Her sentence included a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank.

The harsh sentence, plus her highly publicized gender-identity change and suicide attempts in the all-male prison wing, drew considerable sympathy to her case. She will be released on May 17; similar delays were included in all the commutation orders.

A senior administration official said that the intelligence community still had “deep concerns” about Manning’s disclosures, but that did not have “any bearing” on Obama’s decision.

“Chelsea Manning accepted responsibility for crimes she committed, expressed remorse for committing these crimes,” the official said, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

“The president continues to believe her actions were criminal and ... harmed our national security,” the official said.

By May she will have served nearly seven years in prison, and Obama “believes that is sufficient and has decided to commute her sentence,” the official said.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter did not support the commutation of Manning's sentence, according to U.S. officials who wouldn't comment on the matter publicly.

“As always when presidents come to these decisions, there are some human issues that are part of the equation, and I suspect the transgender issue was part of [Obama’s] consideration,” former CIA head and Pentagon chief Leon E. Panetta said. “It would be more understandable if the president's decision related to that issue."

Manning’s lawyers applauded the decision to cut her sentence short.

"Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary healthcare,” said Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who has represented Manning. “This move could literally save Chelsea’s life.”

Manning has been incarcerated at the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. She twice attempted suicide last year.

She was one of only two people ever convicted under the Espionage Act for making classified data available to the public. The other, Samuel L. Morison, a government security analyst convicted in 1985, was pardoned by President Clinton on his final day in office.

Manning’s release of information to WikiLeaks marked one of the largest breaches of U.S. classified documents, although Snowden’s subsequent release of far more sensitive NSA digital files to news organizations was much larger and more damaging to national security, according to U.S. officials.

Among the material Manning released was a now-infamous 2007 video of an Apache combat helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq and killing 12 people, including two Reuters employees. The military said the helicopter crew mistook a camera lens for a weapon.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national security advisor and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said at the time that Manning’s disclosures had endangered the lives of intelligence operatives and troops.

Republican lawmakers condemned Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called her release “outrageous” and said it set a precedent so "those who compromise our national security" can evade accountability.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the decision “a grave mistake that I fear will encourage further acts of espionage and undermine military discipline.”

The GOP-led Congress was largely silent on the decision to pardon Cartwright, a decorated officer who had served 40 years in the military and was former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

After pleading guilty to lying in a leak investigation, he was due to be sentenced Jan. 31. Federal prosecutors sought a two-year prison sentence for the retired four-star general. 

Cartwright disclosed classified information when he confirmed to a New York Times reporter that a U.S. operation launched under the George W. Bush administration had used a computer worm known as Stuxnet to temporarily cripple Iran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges, a sharp setback to its nuclear program at the time.

The U.S. government has never formally acknowledged launching the cyberattack on Iran.

“The president's decision is wise and just, and it achieves the right result,” said Gregory Craig, Cartwright’s attorney. “It allows Gen. Cartwright to continue his life's work — to serve, protect and defend the nation he loves.”

In a statement, Cartwright thanked Obama. “I love this country and believe it to be the greatest nation on earth,” he said. “I have never lost faith in that belief.”

Cartwright’s service to his country “weighed heavily in the president’s decision,” the senior administration official said.

Obama was persuaded by statements in Cartwright’s court proceedings that he had sought to prevent release of information that might be more dangerous to national security than disclosure of the Stuxnet worm, the official added.

Most of the commutations and pardons were for inmates held for decades.

Among them was Oscar Lopez of Chicago, a member of a Puerto Rican pro-independence group sentenced to 70 years in prison for bombings and bank robberies in the 1970s and 1980s. He has served 35 years in prison.

Obama also pardoned Ian Schrager, a New York hotel operator who founded Studio 54, the late-1970s Manhattan disco club known for attracting celebrities and its lavish parties.

Convicted of income tax evasion in 1980, Schrager served 20 months in prison and was released in 1981. He later founded a string of successful boutique hotels.

Obama also pardoned Willie McCovey, the Hall of Fame first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, who pleaded guilty in 1995 to tax evasion. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $5,000 fine in 1996.

Obama also commuted the death sentence of Dwight J. Loving, a former Army private convicted of murdering two taxicab drivers in 1988, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Loving is one of six military inmates on death row at Ft. Leavenworth. The military carried out its last execution in 1961.

Times staff writers Del Quentin Wilber, Brian Bennett, Tracy Wilkinson and Joseph Tanfani contributed to this report.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @wjhenn

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