Pressure is mounting on President Obama to grant eleventh-hour mercy in the high-profile national security cases of accused Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and transgender military secrets leaker Chelsea Manning.
Lawyers for Sgt. Bergdahl and Manning have written to Mr. Obama in recent days requesting clemency, while a celebrity-studded group including liberal billionaire George Soros is pushing for an unlikely presidential pardon for Mr. Snowden.
While it’s common for lame-duck presidents to receive a flood of clemency requests before their term expires, the pleas in these notorious cases are landing on the desk of a president who has set a record for leniency with more than 1,000 commutations, exceeding the previous 11 presidents combined. The vast majority of Mr. Obama’s commutations have been granted in drug cases as the president seeks a measure of unilateral criminal justice reform.
Opponents of the latest petitions say granting a pardon to Sgt. Bergdahl would send an especially bad signal as he faces a court-martial in May.
“Bowe Bergdahl’s decision to abandon his post in a combat zone during the height of the Afghan insurgency was a clear violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice,” Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican and a Marine Corps veteran, wrote to the White House. “His actions must be judged by the pending court-martial.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican and an Air Force veteran, said the massive search for Sgt. Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009 may have led to the deaths of several American soldiers.
“It has been seven years since Sgt. Bergdahl chose to abandon his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan during a time of war,” Mr. Buchanan said Tuesday. “He should be court-martialed and held accountable.”
Sgt. Bergdahl’s attorney, Eugene Fidell, declined to comment Wednesday. He said previously if the case is still pending on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, he will file a motion for dismissal, asserting that comments by President-elect Donald Trump would make a fair trial impossible after he becomes commander in chief.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump called Sgt. Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” and criticized Mr. Obama’s five-for-one prisoner swap with the Taliban to secure the release of the American soldier who had been held as a prisoner of war for five years.
But the Obama White House also has been accused of taking sides in the case. Upon Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, Mr. Obama hosted his parents in a celebratory Rose Garden event at the White House, and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said Sgt. Bergdahl served his country with “honor and distinction.”
Susan Hennessey, a specialist on national security at the Brookings Institution, said it’s “entirely possible” that Mr. Obama will pardon Sgt. Bergdahl.
“Many people, including those on Obama’s national security council, believed the administration underestimated and mismanaged the political response to Bergdahl’s rescue,” she said. “If Obama agrees that Bergdahl has been unfairly prejudiced because his complex case was politicized by Obama’s opponents, he may feel inclined to issue a pardon.”
Sgt. Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and could face up to life in prison. The Army general who investigated his disappearance from an outpost in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 recommended that Sgt. Bergdahl not receive jail time.
Some legal observers believe there is also a good chance of clemency for Manning, the former Army analyst who is serving 35 years in prison for leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning, who was born a male named Bradley, asked Mr. Obama for clemency in a letter citing harsh treatment in jail, which she said led to suicide attempts.
“I need help and I am still not getting it,” Manning wrote to the president. “I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.”
She said that she attempted suicide a second time in solitary confinement because “the feeling of hopelessness was so immense.”
“This has served as a reminder to me that any lack of treatment can kill me, so I must keep fighting a battle that I wish every day would just end,” Manning said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of gay rights groups have asked Mr. Obama to commute Manning’s sentence to the seven years she has already served in prison.
“If approved, Ms. Manning will have a first chance to live a real, meaningful life as the person she was born to be,” they wrote, adding that Manning is “being forced to serve out her sentence in an all-male prison.”
“The Army even opposed her request to use her legal name and to be referred to by female pronouns,” their letter stated. “While the armed forces have finally opened the door to transgender men and women who wish to serve, the government has continually fought Ms. Manning’s efforts to be treated with basic dignity.”
Ms. Hennessey said many in the national security community view Manning’s sentence as “excessive.”
As for Mr. Snowden, who is charged with violating the Espionage Act by stealing classified documents and exposing U.S. surveillance programs, Mr. Obama has said repeatedly that he won’t issue a pardon.
“I can’t pardon somebody who hasn’t gone before a court and presented themselves, so that’s not something that I would comment on at this point,” Mr. Obama told a German newspaper last month.
The president, a former constitutional law professor, actually was incorrect in that assessment. He could issue a pardon in Mr. Snowden’s case at any time.
A Supreme Court ruling in an 1886 case held that presidential pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.”
A group of prominent Americans has been advocating for a pardon for Mr. Snowden, calling him “a hero” whose actions resulted in the curbing of the NSA’s surveillance powers.
“Ed stood up for us, and it’s time for us to stand up for him,” the group said on its website, PardonSnowden.org. The group includes supporters such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former CIA operative Valerie Plame, actor Danny Glover, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, writer Joyce Carol Oates and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
The White House responded to an online petition seeking a pardon for Snowden in 2013. Presidential adviser Lisa Monaco said Mr. Snowden should have engaged in “constructive” protest and accepted “the consequences of his actions.”
“Snowden’s dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country and the people who work day in and day out to protect it,” she said at the time.
Mr. Snowden has been living in exile in Russia.
“He should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers — not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime,” Ms. Monaco said. “Right now, he’s running away from the consequences of his actions.”