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Vets Slam Obama's Decision to Shorten Manning's Sentence

Chelsea Manning, center, attempted suicide for a second time on Oct 4. (Getty/AFP photo/Alex Wong)
Chelsea Manning, center, attempted suicide for a second time on Oct 4. (Getty/AFP photo/Alex Wong)

Many vets wasted little time registering their disapproval of President Barack Obama's decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who leaked troves of classified intelligence to the website Wikileaks.

Former service members and veterans service organizations alike reacted quickly to the news after it broke on Tuesday.

Military.com's story alone generated more than 800 comments on the website and more than 1,600 on its Facebook page, most of them critical.

"As a classified documents custodian among other classified jobs while active duty, I find this pardoning mess to be as treasonous as the release of the documents themselves," one reader wrote. "This is a slap in the face to anybody punished for minor procedural infractions involving classified information. I witnessed careers destroyed for locking confidential memos in desks instead of safes. It is a sad day for anybody who ever wore a American military uniform."

In an email, another reader, Thomas Prager, wrote, "I can't believe the Army paid for [her] transgender surgery, and I while on active duty separated my shoulder [but] was denied surgery because it was not [deemed] necessary."

Manning, 29, of Oklahoma City, is imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas as part of a 35-year sentence she received in August 2013 after pleading guilty to multiple charges under the Espionage Act. She is now set to be freed May 17, according to a release from the White House. She was to be eligible for parole in 2021.

Manning was among 209 inmates whose sentences were shortened by Obama. Another was Dwight J. Loving, a former Army private stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, who murdered two cab drivers, both with military experience. Loving's death sentence was downgraded to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The president also pardoned another 64 people facing crimes, including retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who pleaded guilty in October to lying to federal investigators about discussing the Iranian nuclear program with reporters.

Brian Duffy, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, blasted the presidential action commuting the sentences of the two military prisoners and pardoning a retired general officer.

"President Obama has upended the entire military justice system," Duffy said in a statement. "To release from prison former Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who was sentenced to serve 35 years for releasing three-quarters of a million classified and sensitive military and diplomatic communiques, is offensive to everyone who has ever honorably served in uniform."

Duffy added, "To change a death sentence to life in prison for former Army Pfc. Dwight Loving shows more concern for the convicted murderer than the families of the two dead taxicab drivers he killed. And to pardon retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who was convicted of lying to the FBI and releasing sensitive intelligence information to reporters, certainly proves once again that rank does have its privileges."

The VFW commander said, "No one is above the law and those who break the law must pay the price, regardless of who they are."

Obama, meanwhile, defended his decision to commute Manning's sentence.

"Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served," Obama said Wednesday during his final White House press conference as president.

Previously identified as a man named Bradley, Manning has sought to undergo gender reassignment surgery in prison -- treatment the Army agreed to pay for. She attempted suicide twice last year -- once in July, and again in October while in solitary confinement -- and also underwent a hunger strike.

Manning became a lightning rod for controversy after her 2010 arrest while serving as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. She faced 20 charges for illegally passing several hundred thousand documents, including military and diplomatic cables, to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks.

Obama said, "It has been my view that given she went to trial; that due process was carried out; that she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportional -- disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute and not pardon her sentence."

Manning's attorney, David Coombs, wasn't able to be reached by Military.com, but he recently told NBC News that he had said to Manning of her sentence, "I've represented murderers. I've represented rapists. I've represented child molesters. And none of them received 35 years."

Obama also rejected the argument that in commuting Manning's sentence he contradicted his own position on the threat posed by Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election.

"With respect to WikiLeaks, I don’t see a contradiction," he said. "The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC emails that were leaked.

"I don't pay a lot of attention to Mr. Assange's tweets, so that wasn’t a consideration in this instance," Obama added, referring to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "And I'd refer you to the Justice Department for any criminal investigations, indictments, extradition issues that may come up with him."

Assange, meanwhile, backed away from a pledge that he would agree to U.S. extradition if Obama granted Manning clemency -- a pledge tweeted just last week on WikiLeaks own Twitter account.

On Wednesday, Assange's attorney in the U.S., Barry Pollack, said in an email to The Hill newspaper that Obama's commutation -- which means Manning will be free in four months rather than immediately -- was "well short of what he sought."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.