Let me get this right … President Obama believes that WikiLeaks is a Russian front or facilitator, complicit in promoting President-elect Donald Trump’s recent election win over Hillary Clinton, who mishandled classified material, left her private server open to hacking, and ended up with her chief of staff’s email hacked and released by WikiLeaks.
President Obama has decried WikiLeaks' involvement in the release of these emails, the truth of which has not been denied – nor the truth of the fact that WikiLeaks released them. He has directly and indirectly cast aspirations on the Trump victory, most recently allowing two politically appointed intelligence chiefs to release damning material involving Russian hacking and WikiLeaks.
One of these politically appointed intelligence leaders has called the president-elect to “apologize” for, or otherwise deny, involvement in leaking the report on leaking, which he admits is not true, although it appears very similar to an opinionated addenda to the report he showed the president-elect.
Now, in an eleventh-hour act of jaw-dropping “clemency,” President Obama has absolved former Army Private First Class Bradley (now Chelsea, by sex change) Manning, of 19 criminal counts and a 35-year sentence for releasing highly classified material to WikiLeaks. Manning originally faced a potential sentence of 136 years, reduced to 90 years, which became 35 – and, upon commutation, goes to zero.
The released material – a different release, at a different time, also to WikiLeaks – was by all accounts devastating to US security. Some say lives were not lost by the release, an unprovable and conclusory contention. Released were more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, 400,000 classified Army reports on the Iraq War, 90,000 on the Afghan War, and classified videos. Among the 19 violations were wrongfully causing intelligence to be made public on the Internet, knowing it would be accessible to the enemy, theft of public property or records, and transmitting defense information.
When will this detour from history end? How can any American make sense of the irony? What can be behind this turn of events? An admitted, unrepentant and devastating traitor to America, complicit with a group that President Obama accuses of criminality, is let go. Why? What does rule of law mean, if not accountability for such acts? What can Americans count on if not accountability for treason, the betrayal of all America? This betrayal was of our men and women in the Armed Services and Intelligence Community. Can there be a more complete betrayal than of those who put their lives at risk for the rest of us?
Beyond the obvious double-standard, unconscionable affront to military and civilian law, violation of every norm of citizenship, and disrespect for American sovereignty, irony piles on irony. The convict “identified as a woman,” thus caused average, working Americans to pay for a gender change operation. The Obama administration went along. A 2015 report says that “procedures for both male-to-female transitions and female-to-male” can “total well over $100,000.” Sometimes cheaper, but does it matter? Is this right? In principle, should American taxpayers underwrite gender preference operations for convicted traitors – who, apparently, get released later? Apparently, yes.
George Orwell was not imaginative enough. He was too tame, too trusting, too sure such a bizarre turn of events would never afflict a republic led by rationale, even manipulative, people. Surely the Founding Fathers, when they allowed a president the prerogative of clemency, a chance to commute an unjust sentence, had nothing like this in mind. Yet here we sit, stunned by what seems to be another betrayal. To some, the commutation might look like mercy. To most, it seems a last slap, a deep double betrayal at the eleventh hour, for reasons that utterly escape cognizable defense.
The message sent? Contorted, and not positive. Is this presidential act legal? Yes, almost certainly. Morally defensible? No. Even Abraham Lincoln, known for his mercy, said “there are some cases where the law must be executed.” In the wake of this act, what more may await? What, if anything, is now beyond the ken? Will another raft of federal drug traffickers be released? Will Mr. Snowden be pardoned? Who knows? The norms are now gone.
What we do know is that the run of this out-of-sync administration, ready to confound average Americans with arrogance and impunity, is nearly over. Whatever lies ahead cannot be as atypical and inexplicable, oddly out of phase and unaligned with basic American sensibilities – as what is soon drawing to a close. If this particular commutation sits poorly, and it does with me, take this comfort: The detour is almost over. Fidelity to rule of law, respect for America’s military, and restoration of non-political intelligence leadership are near at hand. Perhaps the act reminds us of what we are missing – and why we have inaugurations every four years.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under George W. Bush, former New York and DC litigator, Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, and onetime congressional staff director. He writes often on law and national policy.