President Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning is a great parting gift to Donald Trump. It’s a Tu Quoque, an argument that exposes the hypocrisy in one’s target, from the Latin: “You, also.”
It’s the kind of thing Trump is very good at. He tweets that he thinks people who burn the American flag should be put in jail. His critics pounce, only to learn later he is echoing the sentiment from a 2005 bill that Hillary Clinton co-sponsored when she was in the Senate.
Obama is catching on. The spate of pardons and commutations is precisely the kind of thing Trump and his supporters like Sean Hannity love to denounce. Not only has Obama commuted the sentence of Manning, he also commuted a Puerto Rican Marxist bomb-maker and released 10 Guantánamo Bay inmates to Oman.
Too bad Hannity these days supports Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which published the material Manning took. In 2010, Hannity wanted Manning’s head. Tu Quoque?
The U.S. intelligence community today assesses that Russia’s military intelligence, or GRU, hacked the emails of Democrats last year and delivered them to WikiLeaks. So it’s worth comparing Manning’s leaks to the Russian ones.
To start off, Manning’s leaks did more direct harm to national security. No confidential government sources were exposed as a result of the Russian influence operation. Manning’s leaks, because they were published in unredacted form, required the State Department to relocate people who were trying to assist the United States. Manning’s disclosures also aided the enemy. The prosecution against Manning asserted in 2013 that the Afghanistan war logs, a collection of spot intelligence reports from that front, were found in the digital files of Osama bin Laden.
At the same time, the public interest was better served by the Manning leaks. The candid assessment of corruption among Tunisia’s ruling family was one factor that provided the tinder for the Arab Spring, for example. That hasn’t worked out well for U.S. interests in most of the Middle East. But Tunisia is a freer country today as a result of Manning’s disclosures.
The video that Manning provided WikiLeaks, of a U.S. helicopter attack in a Baghdad war zone against a group of men that included Reuters employees, provided the public with evidence the military had shielded from that news organization. Cables that spelled out Russia’s campaign of direct action in Georgia in the 2000s were an important warning in 2010 for Russia’s mounting aggression against its neighbors.
The Democratic email leaks are less defensible than Manning’s, but for different reasons. To start, they belonged to private citizens. To argue that this is in the public’s interest is to sanction a foreign government to violate the privacy rights of Americans. Manning disclosed cables, videos, logs and documents that would have eventually been declassified.
The Russian leaks were also part of a campaign to influence the election. And while some of the hacked emails also contained information that was in the public’s interest, like a memo that detailed how the Clinton Global Initiative had dovetailed with Bill Clinton’s profit-seeking, for the most part the e-mails were dripped out to maximize the advantage for one candidate in the election, Donald Trump.
Obama’s decision to grant clemency to Manning is a hard call. She has clearly suffered. The New York Times has reported that Manning has twice tried to kill herself while in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth. Her 35-year sentence was the longest one ever handed out in a leak case. At the same time, there has never been a leak of this scale in U.S. history — with the exception of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who lives today as a fugitive in Moscow.
The decision on whether to defend Assange, though, is an easy one. His website was used as part of a Russian operation to meddle in our politics.
One interesting part of all this is whether Obama’s decision will spur Assange himself to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he dodges a Swedish arrest warrant. He promised to extradite himself to the United States if Obama granted Manning clemency. I imagine this is a problem the outgoing president will relish giving to his successor.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.