Editorial of The New York Sun | January 17, 2017
Shocking is the only word for President Obama’s decision to release Private Manning from prison after serving but six of the 35 years to which the disgraced soldier had been sentenced by a military court. We understand that it is fully within the President’s constitutional power. And that the private’s circumstances — as a transgender soldier being held largely in solitary at a prison for men — must be exceptionally excruciating. Yet what kind of signal does this commutation send when we are still in the middle of a war in which thousands of our GIs are in harm’s way?
No doubt the commutation will be hailed by the New York Times and the Guardian. But they went into a partnership with Julian Assange in disseminating the thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents that Manning was later convicted of uploading to Wikileaks. All newspapers, ourselves included, have been shown government secrets from time to time. But at the root of Manning’s crime was an astounding act of nihilism, one deserving of every year to which the private was sentenced by a fair and judicious court martial.
By the Times’ own account, Manning “copied hundreds of thousands of military incident logs from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which, among other things, exposed abuses of detainees by Iraqi military officers working with American forces and showed that civilian deaths in the Iraq war were likely much higher than official estimates.” It puts at 250,000 the number of diplomatic cables Manning exposed, including, among other things, “dossiers detailing intelligence assessments of Guantánamo detainees held without trial” and a helicopter attack that killed two journalists.
Much has been made throughout this case of the notion that the prosecutors effectively accused Manning of “treason” for “aiding” the enemy. In fact, under our Constitution, merely “aiding” an enemy does not rise to treason. Treason shall consist, the Constitution warns, “only” in levying war against the United States or “adhering” to their enemies, giving them both aid and comfort. We have never felt, and don’t believe prosecutors contended, that Manning was actually “adhering” to our enemies. Aiding alone is not treason, and the private was acquitted even of aiding.
The six espionage counts on which Manning was convicted, though, are serious enough. The private was lucky to escape the death penalty. Manning claimed to be animated by high-minded motives and at trial sought sympathy for having been dealing with “all sorts of issues,” as the Times quoted the transgender private as saying. In pleading for commutation after conviction, however, the private claimed to have “never made any excuses for what I did.” Manning wrote of “believing the military justice system” would “sentence me fairly” and added: “I was wrong.”
Does Mr. Obama agree with that? His commutation certainly suggests so. The White House spokesman sought last week to draw a distinction between Manning and the fugitive spy Edward Snowden. The spokesman said that Manning “is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced” and “acknowledged wrongdoing.” All in sharp contradistinction to Mr. Snowden, who “fled into the arms of an adversary.” Had Mr. Snowden been captured and jailed, would Mr. Obama would have commuted his sentence, too?