As one of the final acts of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the 35-year sentence of convicted whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
The editorial board views this commutation as a last-second attempt by the former president to change our perception on how his administration dealt with whistleblowers.
Manning was sentenced in 2013 to federal prison for leaking 750,000classified, confidential and unclassified diplomatic and military documents through WikiLeaks and is set to be freed in four months instead of in 2045.
At the time an Army intelligence analyst serving in Iraq, Manning released the documents because of concerns about the United States’ presence in the country and ignited a firestorm of public debate.
The Obama administration’s record on transparency and whistleblowers is suspect at best.
The administration prosecuted more leak cases than every other administration in history combined, and Manning’s last-second commutation was a surprising course reversal for the departing president.
This is also unexpected given the administration’s record regarding other transparency and whistleblowing issues.
While promising to be the most transparent administration in history, open document access Freedom of Information Act requests were also denied at the highest rate in history.
The Associated Press reported open access requests took longer to complete and were less likely to be approved. In nearly a third of the cases that were denied and later challenged, withholding records was deemed improper in the first place.
The tough crackdown on whistleblowers and limiting of access to government documents was matched by a massive expansion of the U.S. government’s online surveillance capability that was revealed by leakers such as Manning and Edward Snowden.
During Obama's presidency, government agencies such as the National Security Agency developed and used techniques to collect information, including phone metadata, internet history and email contact information, on millions of American citizens.
These techniques and technologies do not leave with the Obama administration, and concerns of civil rights advocates that these powers, meant for investigating terrorism, could be abused by the state to target activists or political opponents remain relevant whoever the president happens to be.
Taken together, the Editorial Board has to view Manning’s commutation in the light of the administration’s actions during the last eight years. The Obama administration failed to set a high standard for transparency and no last-minute pardon, no matter how high-profile, can gloss it over.