The Foolish Optimism of Hoping for Chelsea Manning’s Freedom

This column will soon be out of date. There are only a few days of Barack Obama’s presidential pardon powers left. He will either offer clemency to whistleblower Chelsea Manning, thereby ending her sentence three decades sooner than officially mandated, or he will not. And the chances of her gaining freedom under a Republican-dominated Washington seem even less likely than Obama doing the right thing here.

But it is unlikely than Obama does anything, even if he is rumored to be considering it. It took him more than a full term to get started, but Obama has managed to end his tenure with more than 1300 clemencies granted to various ex-felons and prisoners. He has also been a hypocrite on the war on drugs, considering his past use of marijuana and cocaine. However, he didn’t hinder the progress that begin in Colorado and Washington state when they legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Obama could have been better, or worse, on criminal justice. Certainly his legacy will be fluffed up by the simple fact that he didn’t entirely block the changes being made, or try to stand up against the shifting popular opinion on the issue.

One place where Obama appears to show little mercy (besides abroad, under the target sites of drones and bombs in seven countries) is on the issue of whistleblowers and leakers. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was pragmatic to flee the USA after offering Glenn Greenwald and other journalists his bounty of stolen information on the country’s massive spying apparatus. He had a good reason to believe that his fate would be years to decades in prison if he were taken prisoner.

Chelsea Manning is undoubtedly one reason Snowden fled to Russia. The former Army intelligence officer leaked thousands of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks, who in turn shared them with various publications. In 2013, she was sentenced to a staggeringly strict 35 years in prison. She was also detained before trial for more than three years, during which she was repeatedly put in solitary confinement (as she has been since, attempting suicide twice) and punished for absurd violations, such as possessing expired toothpaste.

Wanting the public to get a clearer picture of a horrific war-including the infamous "Collateral Murder" video-is a crime under any administration, if the enlightening information is intended to be kept secret from the peons. Obama, however, diluting his own tepid reputation as a civil libertarian, has waged a brutal war on whistleblowers and on transparency during his eight years in office. It’s been years since "the most transparent administration in history" was anything besides a grim joke.

The Obama administration embraced the Espionage Act, that moldy relic of World War I. They’ve used it more than any previous administration combined. While Manning, Snowden, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, former NSA official Thomas Drake, and others either faced prosecution, or fled in fear from it, government-sanctioned elites from Hillary Clinton to General David Petraeus got off with little to no punishment for leaking or mishandling classified information. There is a hierarchy here, like anywhere else when it comes to the national security state. Manning and Snowden, and Daniel Ellsberg before that, were initially at least on the outskirts of the elite. But they choose to share information with the public instead, confirming their statuses as prisoner (Manning), exile (Snowden), or elder statesman of lawlessness (Ellsberg), who is still seen as a traitor by many, and who if not for Nixon’s bumbling, might have spent 100 years in prison. Ellsberg has embraced Manning previously, and this week Assange said he would accept extradition to Sweden (where he faces sexual assault charges) in exchange for clemency for his most famous leaker. Snowden, too, was on team Manning, tweeting that she was the one person, if anyone, who Obama should help before his term is up.

But the idea that Obama would embrace any of these people, or offer them clemency is most likely foolish. The NSA is not as beloved as the armed forces, but rage against Snowden, who supposedly remains unpunished, even as he lives in permanent exile, remains strong. Manning is at least getting her punishment, thereby making her easier to ignore, as long as she stays where she is. From a PR perspective, Obama might be more easily able to get away with pardoning her with a magnanimous "time served." But why would he? Why, even in the face of real and imagined fears of President Trump, would we really think Obama is on the side of the civil libertarian, free speech, or transparency to that extent? What evidence beyond occasional pretty speech do we have to believe it for a moment? It’s wishful thinking, and it’s deluded optimism no matter how many rumors exist that Manning is on Obama’s "maybe" list.

If, however, Obama wishes to prove the naysayers wrong, that would be excellent. He won’t be forgiven for his crimes, or the hideous precedents of spying and drone assassination he set, and has ready for Trump, but he could go out on as many high notes as he likes in this last week. Funny how few presidents choose to push towards anything good when they finally have nothing left to lose, and no reelection to consider. Obama, like the rest of them, can’t get too crazy. He most likely still wants to get invited to the right parties, and onto the right television shows when this is all over, and his legacy is pristine and bloodless in the country’s rearview mirror.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.