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Obama Defends Decision To Commute Sentence Of Chelsea Manning

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Obama gave the last press conference of his term today. The first topic he was asked about - his decision to commute the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. Manning is the former Army private who gave hundreds of thousands of military and State Department records to WikiLeaks back in 2010. She was arrested, tried and convicted and sentenced to 35 years. But following Obama's clemency, she will get out of prison this May.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is covering this story, and he's with us now. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey there.

MCEVERS: So why did the president say he decided to commute Chelsea Manning's prison sentence?

BOWMAN: Well, in short, the president said Manning had been punished enough. She was found guilty, paid the price with about seven years in prison. And here's what he talked about in a press conference today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let's be clear. 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.

BOWMAN: And, Kelly, the president said that this was a commutation of the sentence and not a pardon. And he said that justice was served.

MCEVERS: I want to talk about WikiLeaks which published these documents for Manning. I mean how damaging were those documents? Does this commutation mean anything in terms of the government's position on WikiLeaks?

BOWMAN: Well, the - initially the leaks back in 2010 of military documents upset the Pentagon. One officer said that WikiLeaks had blood on its hand. There were, for example, names of Afghan informers. But there was never any indication that anyone got killed. Still, there was great concern about these sensitive military documents. And back then, with regard to the State Department documents released in 2010, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates said all of this was embarrassing, not all that damaging, though, to national security.

Now, the new administration of President-elect Trump has embraced WikiLeaks because it played of course such a big role in releasing the leaks during this recent election, the leaks of documents from Democratic operatives embarrassing to Hillary Clinton. And they - these were hacked of course by Russian intelligence.

And Assange was stridently anti-Clinton and suggested that he'd surrender to the U.S. if Obama granted clemency to Manning. Now that the president has, no one expects him to get on a plane to the U.S. But we'll have to watch what happens with WikiLeaks and whether it's a partisan supporter of Trump or what happens. We don't know that yet.

MCEVERS: One person who did not get clemency was Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who also leaked sensitive government documents. Why no pardon for him?

BOWMAN: Well, the White House says he never applied for a pardon, but also, his leaks were far more serious, officials say. It included war plans for Korea, for the Middle East, for Russia. It included collections of how the NSA collects against foreign adversaries - very, very sensitive information. It's far different from what Chelsea Manning leaked. So for that reason, they were never even considering a pardon for Edward Snowden. Also, Snowden fled to Russia, which is a big deal, too.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.