President Obama on Tuesday commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army intelligence analyst convicted of leaking military secrets, issued a pardon for former Gen. James Cartwright and freed a Puerto Rican nationalist in a last-minute flurry of clemency grants that added to the president’s record-breaking total.
Just three days before leaving office, Mr. Obama ordered Manning to be released from federal prison on May 17 rather than serving the rest of her sentence for espionage until 2045. The former Bradley Manning was convicted of stealing and distributing 750,000 pages of national security documents and videos to WikiLeaks.
Advocates for Manning said she was being held unfairly in a male prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and tried to kill herself twice in the past year. Manning also engaged in a lengthy legal fight to force the military prison system to pay for sex-change treatments. The American Civil Liberties Union said her life was in danger and that only Mr. Obama could save her.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said on Twitter, “Thank you to everyone who campaigned for Chelsea Manning’s clemency. Your courage & determination made the impossible possible.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, called the president’s decision “outrageous.”
“Chelsea Manning’s treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation’s most sensitive secrets,” Mr. Ryan said. “President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and a veteran of the Afghanistan War, said the government should treat Manning like a traitor instead of a martyr.
“When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Pvt. Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks,” Mr. Cotton said. “I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers and allies.”
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said Manning, the 208 others who had their sentences commuted Tuesday and the 64 who received pardons “learned that our nation is a forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance, and where wrongs from the past will not deprive an individual of the opportunity to move forward.”
Among others who received relief from the president was Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in 2012 in an inquiry about leaking top-secret details to journalists about U.S. efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. He was facing a possible prison term this month.
Mr. Obama also ordered the release of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has been imprisoned for about 35 years on his conviction for weapons offenses and seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. Lopez Rivera, 73, was to have remained in prison until 2023.
The clemency grants brought Mr. Obama’s total number of commutations in office to 1,385, the most by any president in history and more than the previous 11 presidents combined. Of those, 504 were serving life sentences for drug convictions and other charges, often including firearms offenses.
The 64 pardons issued on Tuesday brought the president’s total in eight years to 212.
The incoming administration of Donald Trump is unlikely to meet Mr. Obama’s record-breaking pace of clemency. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, was an opponent of a bipartisan bill aimed at reducing criminal sentences.
The pardons and commutations are among the few executive actions Mr. Obama has taken that Mr. Trump can’t reverse. Grants of clemency are not revokable.
Mr. Eggleston said Congress should renew efforts to approve a stalled criminal justice reform measure.
“While the mercy the president has shown his 1,597 clemency recipients is remarkable, we must remember that clemency is an extraordinary remedy,” he said. “Only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.”
By far the most infamous case addressed by Mr. Obama in this round of clemency was Manning, who said after being convicted on espionage charges that she identified as a woman and had been wrestling with gender identity issues at the time of the leaks, while deployed in Iraq.
Manning copied thousands of military records from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars covering alleged abuses of detainees and civilian casualty estimates. She also copied thousands of diplomatic cables revealing sensitive national security details from U.S. embassies.
The documents were published by WikiLeaks, giving prominence and notoriety to its founder, Mr. Assange.
On Twitter last week, WikiLeaks posted a comment saying, “If Obama grants Manning clemency, Assange will agree to U.S. extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case.”
Human rights groups praised Mr. Obama’s decision to release Manning.
“Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the U.S. government for years,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.”
Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project representing Manning, said she had been denied sex-change medication in prison.
“We are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many,” Mr. Strangio said.
But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Obama’s action “will embolden future leakers who will be led to believe there will not be serious consequences for their actions.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, a former U.S. Army Delta Force commander and Family Research Council executive vice president, said Mr. Obama “chose political correctness over our national security.”
“Since his imprisonment, Manning has demanded the U.S. Army force taxpayers to pay for his gender transition — even as veterans report finding it difficult to obtain medical services at VA clinics,” Mr. Boykin said. “What a sad commentary on this administration when an act of treason entitles you to better care than most of the men and women who have honorably served this country.
“For the last eight years, the military has been used to advance a liberal social agenda. Sadly, this remains the case even in the final hours of the Obama presidency,” he said.
At the other end of the Republican spectrum, there was agreement from the Log Cabin Republicans, which has represented gay Republicans since the Reagan era.
The group has “always condemned Manning’s actions, and consistently stood against efforts by the left to elevate Manning as a paragon of the LGBT community,” according to a statement.
Organization President Gregory T. Angelo said “Manning was not imprisoned for being transgender — in fact, the government agreed to accommodate and facilitate her transition during her well-deserved sentence. She was imprisoned for traitorous clandestine activity that put military lives at risk.”
The commutation for Lopez Rivera also had been the subject of an extensive human rights campaign as the president prepared to leave office.
Lopez Rivera was a member of the clandestine Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional, or FALN, that carried out a series of bombings in the U.S. for the goal of Puerto Rican independence. From 1974 to 1983, prosecutors said, FALN was responsible for 140 bombings on U.S. military bases, government offices and financial buildings nationwide.
Advocates for Lopez Rivera said that he personally never harmed anyone. The group’s bombings killed four people in 1975 at the historic Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan, and injured about 50 people.
In 1977, a worker at the Mobil oil building in New York City was killed in another FALN attack.
On the release of Lopez Rivera, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, thanked Mr. Obama “on behalf of millions of Puerto Ricans.”
“The long fight against colonialism in the Caribbean has had many chapters and we have all put violence behind us,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Releasing Oscar Lopez Rivera back to his homeland and his people is a step towards peace and reconciliation and is being celebrated by Puerto Ricans of all political stripes, classes, colors and geographies. He is a national hero no less significant than Roberto Clemente or any leader we have ever had.”
Mr. Obama’s relief for Cartwright, a retired Marine Corps general who was a key member of the president’s national security team until 2011, saved him from a possible prison sentence.
Cartwright pleaded guilty in October to lying to FBI agents investigating the leaking of classified material about cyberattacks against Iran. He was due to be sentenced this month, and prosecutors were seeking a sentence of two years in prison.
His attorney, Greg Craig, a former White House counsel to Mr. Obama, thanked the president.
“The president’s decision is wise and just, and it achieves the right result,” Mr. Craig said. “It allows Gen. Cartwright to continue his life’s work — to serve, protect and defend the nation he loves. It allows the nation to continue to benefit from his vast experience and knowledge.”
• Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.