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Chelsea Manning Set To Be Released From Military Prison


On Wednesday, Chelsea Manning is expected to walk free. Manning is the former Army private who leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks. She spent seven years in custody, and she would have spent longer, but then President Obama granted her clemency back in January days before he left office. Joining us to discuss the Manning case is Steven Nelson. He's a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. Steven, thanks for coming in.

STEVEN NELSON: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Remind us the details of what Chelsea Manning at the time - went by the name Bradley Manning - what Manning was sentenced for.

NELSON: Well, as a 22 year old based in Iraq, Chelsea accessed a military computer system and shared with WikiLeaks 750,000 classified documents that contained military and diplomatic dispatches.

KELLY: And received a 35-year prison sentence for that.

NELSON: Yes, yes.

KELLY: Is that a typical sentence for that kind of offense?

NELSON: No. Part of the reason that the White House justified granting her clemency was because it was so much longer than other recent leak sentences. In a lot of the cases, people plead guilty and get maybe a year in prison. But 35 years really shocked people. And the seven years that had already been served was seen as enough by the Obama White House.

KELLY: The debate about how much harm was caused or wasn't by her actions is ongoing. I usually cover the national security beat and national security officials will tell you Manning gravely harmed national security with those disclosures through WikiLeaks. Her lawyers have always claimed and continue to claim otherwise.

NELSON: Right. I'm sure everyone listening recalls there being talk about lives being put at risk. But so far as actually killing someone, there is absolutely no credible allegation that that happened.

KELLY: Which leads me to my next question which is what's the difference between what Chelsea Manning did and the other famous leaker whose name everybody knows Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor?

NELSON: Right. Well, Manning as a 22 year old wanted to spark a broad worldwide discussion of various injustices she perceived in scandals, whereas Snowden who had access to more highly classified documents had a very specific policy debate he wanted to start about surveillance. And he left the country, rather than be arrested.

When the Obama administration was preparing to grant Manning clemency, they drew the distinction that Manning had faced trial, that Manning had expressed some degree of contrition. Snowden, of course, is totally unrepentant, feels he did the right thing. So that's a real distinction. He hasn't been tried, he's not sorry, and Manning was both.

KELLY: One of the reasons given for the harsh sentence was that it might deter future leakers. Do we have any evidence that that has in fact happened? Is that still the hope?

NELSON: Well, part of the reason for that theory was because Snowden had released his documents two months before Manning was sentenced, unfortunately for Manning probably. But there is, of course, no evidence that it's going to stop leakers. People are always going to be mishandling classified information, and people are always going to be willing to risk prison to do what they feel is right.

We have proof of that just the first few months of the Trump presidency leaking information about the phone calls Trump has had with the leaders of Mexico and Australia. That arguably is a crime, and people could face prison for that, the same with leaking information about foreign intelligence intercepts regarding Michael Flynn. So obviously people are still willing to take the risk. I assume that they don't think that they're going to be spending 35 years in jail though.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Steven Nelson of U.S. News and World Report. Thank you for joining us.

NELSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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