From the moment a military judge handed down a 35-year prison term for Chelsea Manning in 2013, President Obama and some administration officials saw the sentence as excessive. “Nuts,” said one person close to Obama.
They said Manning, an Army private charged with disclosing troves of secret files to WikiLeaks, should be punished for her crime. But while Obama, a former law professor, was known for his tough stance on government leakers, he had also advocated for changing America’s often harsh, inconsistent sentencing practices.
Long before Manning’s attorneys submitted a second clemency request in November, Obama had considered the notion of “proportionate sentences” in evaluating the soldier’s case, as he had in decisions to grant clemency to more than 1,300 drug offenders.
The key question for the president was how much time Manning should serve. He and his advisers looked at other government leak cases, which indicated that 35 years was the longest sentence ever imposed for a leak conviction. By the time the second request came in, Manning had served six years, much of that time subjected to harsh treatment and solitary confinement.
In his decision to commute Manning’s sentence, made…