Army Leaker Chelsea Manning on Obama's 'Short List' for Commutation
People hold signs calling for the release of imprisoned wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning while marching in a gay pride parade in San Francisco, California June 28, 2015.Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters
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President Barack Obama has put Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified material, on his short list for a possible commutation, a Justice Department source told NBC News.
Prosecutors branded Manning a "traitor" seeking notoriety in the world of hackers and anarchists. Manning's lawyers painted their client as a naive whistle-blower who caused little more than mortification.
Manning pleaded guilty and before the sentencing delivered an apology to the court — and the nation. A recording of that statement is being broadcast for the first time by NBC News.
"I'm sorry," Manning said. "I'm sorry that my actions hurt people. I'm sorry that they hurt the United States."
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"I understand that I must pay the price for my decisions and actions," Manning added.
Those words of contrition did not sway the military judge, who gave Manning a sentence about 10 times longer than those of recent whistle-blowers.
"After this case, I had to tell Chelsea: 'I've represented murderers. I've represented rapists. I've represented child molesters. And none of them received 35 years,'" defense lawyer David Coombs told NBC News.
Manning — who announced she was a transgender woman named Chelsea the day after the verdict — didn't seem to process what the sentence meant for her, her aunt said.
"I don't think it really sunk in," Deborah Manning said. "Thirty-five years is just a long thing to try to imagine, especially when you're just in your early 20s."
Manning's supporters believe the harshness of the sentence can be traced to another leaker; the scandal around former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was erupting around the same time.
"I really believe the judge felt she needed to send some sort of message," the aunt said. "I think in a way she was a scapegoat for Edward Snowden."
Snowden, who has asked Obama for clemency, tweeted his support of Manning shortly after NBC News' report about the commutation decision aired on TODAY on Wednesday morning.
Mr. President, if you grant only one act of clemency as you exit the White House, please: free Chelsea Manning. You alone can save her life.
Four former and current Army intelligence officers told NBC News the documents leaked by Manning pale in significance to highly classified top secret material released by Snowden. The officers, who would not allow their names to be used, said the Manning sentence seems excessive.
The Manning leak included video of a deadly 2007 air strike in Baghdad in which the U.S. helicopter crew could be heard laughing about the casualties and State Department cables with blunt comments from American diplomats.
"I don't think any harm was done," Coombs said of the disclosures. "A lot of embarrassment, certainly."
Alexa O'Brien, a freelance journalist, covered the trial and sat in the courtroom every day. She said she believes Manning did not mean to harm the U.S. and that the pre-sentence apology was genuine.
"Everything she said in that statement is completely morally and ethically consistent with what she said when she pled to 10 lesser or included offenses," O'Brien said.
Last month, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition seeking commutation of Manning's sentence, meeting the threshold for a White House response within 60 days. The American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights groups have also been lobbying for a reprieve.
In their petition to President Obama, Manning's legal team cited the need for better medical care for gender dysphoria, a condition that includes severe distress or anxiety by some transgender people.
Manning has been receiving hormone therapy at the Leavenworth military prison and is allowed to wear women's undergarments, but a military doctor recently refused to change her gender on her Army records.
Manning's aunt said she hoped Obama would consider the former soldier's troubled upbringing, struggles with gender identity and remorse.
"I would say this is someone who's never had a chance in life, who is extremely bright, who became extremely emotionally distressed as some point, who made a bad decision, who paid for that bad decision," Deborah Manning said.
"And it's time to let her go out and try to make a positive contribution in the world."
Cynthia McFadden is the senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News.
Kevin Monahan is a producer for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a freelance writer who specializes in national security.
Tracy Connor is a senior writer for NBC News. She started this role in December, 2012. Connor is responsible for reporting and writing breaking news, features and enterprise stories for NBCNews.com. Connor joined NBC News from the New York Daily News, where she was a senior writer covering a broad range of news and supervising the health and immigration beats. Prior to that she was an assistant city editor who oversaw breaking news and the courts and entertainment beats.
Earlier, Connor was a staff writer at the New York Post, United Press International and Brooklyn Paper Publications.
Connor has won numerous awards from journalism organizations including the Deadline Club and the New York Press Club.