As one of his very last acts in office, President Obama has commuted the sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning by 28 years. EFF applauds Obama for using his last days as president to bring justice to Manning’s case. And we congratulate all those who supported, defended, and spoke out on behalf of Manning over the years and supported her clemency petition. Your efforts secured her freedom.
Manning was originally sentenced to 35 years in prison for her role in the release of approximately 700,000 military and diplomatic records to WikiLeaks. Under this sentence—the longest punishment ever imposed on a whistleblower in United States history—Manning would have been released in 2045. Now, under the terms set by President Obama, Manning is to be released on May 17, 2017, after more than seven years behind bars.
Last year, EFF filed an amicus brief in support of Manning to the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Manning was convicted of 19 counts as a result of her whistleblowing activities, including one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”). The notoriously vague law makes it illegal to intentionally access a computer connected to the Internet “without authorization,” but it doesn’t say what "without authorization” means. The government’s theory in Manning’s case was that she violated the CFAA when she disregarded the terms of a written computer use policy, which prohibited using unauthorized software to access a Department of State database.
EFF also successfully defended Manning’s ability to access information while in custody. After hearing word that the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth had refused to provide her with printouts of EFF blog posts and other materials related to prisoner censorship—ostensibly to protect EFF’s copyrights—we contacted USDB and made sure Manning received the materials. We’ve also worked to protect the ability of Manning’s supporters to amplify her voice.
Manning’s case—and draconian, 35-year sentence—highlights the need for legal reform. First, Congress needs to clarify something that courts across the country have already recognized: that the CFAA—a seriously outdated law—was never meant to criminalize violations of private policies. Second, it’s time for Congress to enact strong protections for whistleblowers, including reforming the Espionage Act to take into account both the motivation of individuals who pass on documents and the ramifications of the disclosure.
While we’ll continue to fight for CFAA reform and whistleblower rights into the future, today we celebrate Manning’s freedom. Even from solitary confinement, Manning provided a unique perspective on foreign affairs, surveillance, incarceration, and gender identity through her essays and tweets. We look forward to her rejoining us in the free world and fulfilling her full potential—right alongside us.