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Why the Cartwright Pardon is More Important Than the Manning Commutation

 

Today’s news of President Obama’s decision to commute most of the rest of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence has received (and will receive) significant media attention for obvious (and mostly good) reasons. But at the risk of shifting attention away from an important development from a humanitarian perspective, it seems to me that the far bigger news from the perspective of policy- and precedent-setting is the pardon of General James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to making false statements during the investigation into the leak of the U.S. role in Stuxnet (and was originally scheduled to be sentenced today). After all, there were compelling moral and humanitarian reasons to commute Manning’s sentence wholly unrelated to her culpability for leaking thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. In Cartwright’s case, in contrast, the plea deal had suggested a sentencing range between a $500 fine and six months in prison–and so the pardon appears to be far more substantive than humanitarian, suggesting an assessment by the President that the underlying conduct (making false statements as a part of an investigation into a major national security leak) could be set aside in favor of the long and distinguished career of the perpetrator.

Indeed, in contrast to, say, some of the Snowden leaks–which brought to light surveillance programs that were legally controversial, and, in one case, unlawful–it’s not clear that anyone could have portrayed General Cartwright (or anyone else involved in the Stuxnet leak) as a whistleblower. Is it possible, then, that the Cartwright pardon is a tacit admission on the government’s part that it has been a bit too hard on leakers and those, like General Cartwright, who have interfered with leak investigations?

I don’t know the answer–and I very much doubt that this is the beginning of a trend. But given the criticisms that have regularly been leveled against the Obama administration for its aggressive (and, at times, overzealous) pursuit of leak investigations, the Cartwright pardon is an interesting denouement…

 

Image: President Barack Obama blows the horn as he and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright watch the Wounded Warrior Soldier Ride on the grounds of the White House, May 4, 2011 – Getty

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About the Author

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law Follow him on Twitter (@steve_vladeck).