Keeping up with the Trump-Russia investigation is a full-time job, but every now and then there’s a wrinkle to latch onto. Surprisingly, this one came from former president Barack Obama on his way out the door. Some context: one of the major complaints that progressives had with the Obama administration was their relentless pursuit of whistleblowers. It was seen as a betrayal of explicit campaign promises to set a new standard in presidential transparency. Coupled with the fuzzy accounting of non-combatant casualties of American drone strikes, I would wager that it’s the issue most likely to leave a sour taste on the subject of Obama.
And similar to the drone strikes on sovereign countries, Barack Obama’s state department wasn’t afraid to throw the book at anyone they suspected of whistleblowing or abetting whistleblowers. There was the rerouting of the Bolivian president’s plane from its Russian departure to Vienna on the suspicion that Edward Snowden may have been onboard. It was an episode that added fuel to anti-American sentiment in Europe over the scope of American spying programs, with the Bolivian vice president Alvaro Garcia calling it a kidnapping “by imperialism”. Snowden was not on the plane.
Chelsea Manning was, initially, not as lucky as Edward Snowden. Though she escaped an espionage charge, Manning was convicted of violating “the Espionage Act, copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay”. If she were in Yemen, she could have expected to find herself on the receiving end of a drone, but she was sentenced to 35 years by a military court for her role in giving the information to WikiLeaks, significant portions of which were spent in solitary confinement after a suicide attempt.
It was the longest sentence “ever imposed for providing government secrets to the public”. As you might surmise, Barack Obama and his administration were not fans, so it came as a giant shock to everyone when Obama decided to commute her sentence to end on May 17th, 2017. Manning, who officially began transitioning from male to female after her conviction, had requested clemency, claiming that “her life was at risk in an all-male prison”. She also pleaded that her health was failing due to the “long stretches of solitary confinement” and being “denied access to medically necessary health care”.
Progressives celebrated, and rightfully so. It was a happy ending to a story that was lacking one entirely. Many people who were consistently vocal critics of the Obama administration, including Edward Snowden and The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who brought a lot of the leaked information to international attention as well as advocated for the release of Manning, thanked Obama for one of his parting actions. It is believed that the action may have saved her life.
Happy (and shocked) as I was to hear the news, I think Obama had a much more canny thought process behind his action. Much as I would like to believe that he did it out of the goodness of his heart, it doesn’t add up, based on past actions. There is also the deal that Julian Assange, editor of WikiLeaks, struck via Twitter with the parting president: Assange would allow for the US to extradite him in exchange for the early release of Chelsea Manning from prison.
Obama got a lot of flak from prominent American conservatives, including Speaker Paul Ryan and former opponent John McCain. They made arguments that the commutation would send out a message of leniency towards future whistleblowers, but this is incorrect. Again, it’s something that just doesn’t add up when considering past actions by the Obama administration. Instead, I think Obama considered Assange’s deal and accepted it, knowing that he would catch hell in certain quarters but also be following a precedent set by other presidents of racking up a lot of commutations at the very last second when he still had the power but didn’t have to ride out the blowback.
And why not go out with a bang? Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden were targets of Obama, but ultimately they were just arms of the larger beast. By doing exactly what Assange asked, Obama hedged his bets that he would be able to knock him out of his indefinite state of political limbo in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and hit WikiLeaks where it hurt. As of Thursday, the news broke that the Justice Department was prepping charges against Assange. I can’t say when placed under oath, what Julian Assange will have to say about the election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but I can guarantee you it will be interesting. As with most things Trump, now we wait and see.
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