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President Obama Commutes Sentence of Chelsea Manning; Sen. Tom Cotton: "We Ought Not Treat A Traitor Like A Martyr"; Obama Commute Sentence Of Manning, Pardons Cartwright. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 17, 2017 - 16:30   ET



BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The Pentagon was absolutely furious. They made every effort to prosecute to the full extent of the law, in no small part to send a signal to others that they cannot do this.

Remember, Manning was a relatively low-level Army person at the time, and was able really to manipulate the system by downloading classified information out of a larger computer system onto some personal data, and then distributing it allegedly to WikiLeaks.

So, this is going to be something that will be very tough for the military to swallow. They have really tried over the years to make sure there is a law enforcement signal sent, if you will, that leaking and stealing of information and hacking cannot be tolerated.

Slightly different, however, with General Cartwright, a well-respected four-star, because, behind the scenes, the feeling always was that, to be very clear, it was a feeling that Cartwright was offering this information to U.S. journalists at the behest of the White House, that clearly they wanted to make sure that journalists had a certain amount of information about this Iranian program, and they used Cartwright to do it, and then he basically got caught lying to the FBI about doing it.

General Cartwright, in the years that he served, was personally very close to President Obama on a number of policy matters. You know, they say the big guys escape the jail sentence, the little guys don't in the U.S. military. But in this case, I think many people felt General Cartwright perhaps not totally fairly prosecuted for what he did, that there were extenuating circumstances.

I think the problem now is that the release of Chelsea Manning comes against this broader backdrop of WikiLeaks' role in dealing with the American military, the national security community intelligence. And I think the big question is, how can this be seen other than a potential victory for WikiLeaks? We will have to see what Julian Assange has to say about it all.


And, Michelle Kosinski at the White House, I'm just looking at a petition here from Amnesty calling for a pardon or commutation for Chelsea Manning. Their argument was that Chelsea Manning was serving the sentence for blowing the whistle on human rights abuses by coalition forces in Iraq and was oversentenced as an example to others and has already served her time.

Is that the reason why President Obama is commuting Chelsea Manning's sentence; he essentially bought into that argument?


And we're going to have to wait to talk to President Obama himself tomorrow. He's going to give his last press conference. So, you see how he did this. He issued these pardons and commutations today, giving the press ample time to question him tomorrow.

I mean, he could have done this a day later and then, you know, it's much more difficult to get at the heart of this. So, obviously, the White House is willing to shed light on this, to talk about the reasoning. But, remember, there was also a big petition that formed for the president to pardon or commute -- he hasn't been tried, but Edward Snowden.

So, you look at these two things side by side. Edward Snowden hasn't come back to the U.S. to face charges, but we have heard the White House weigh in on that case, saying they believe that his leaking hurt national security, and that he has never come back to face the charges.

Well, by comparison, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. So, is this a question of scale? Is it a question of who is facing the charges head on and making their argument for doing what they did? Is it the matter of shining light on human rights abuses?

Because we know that there have been people within the administration who have talked about leaking in general, in a general sense, saying that, you know, in some ways, it helps to shine a light on certain things that would otherwise be secret and that some maybe feel should not always be secret.

So, there are arguments to be made there. We have heard some groups make those arguments. And we will see what the president has to say about it.

TAPPER: All right, Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much.

We're going to take a quick break. When we come, back we're going to talk about these pardons and commutations and, of course, all the week's politics. Stick around. We're going to take a quick break. We will be right back.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We have this breaking news this hour, President Obama shortening the sentences and issuing pardons for hundreds of individuals, perhaps most shockingly commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who supplied sensitive material to WikiLeaks.

Let's bring in my panel to talk about it all.

We have with us Bill Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard," Margaret Talev, White House correspondent at Bloomberg, and David Catanese, senior politics writer for "U.S. News & World Report."

Thanks all of you for being here.

Bill, you brought to my attention a tweet that WikiLeaks, the beneficiary of Chelsea Manning's leak, sent out in January suggesting, if we can put that up, if you have it up, suggesting that if Obama grants Chelsea Manning clemency, Julian Assange, who has obviously been holed up inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for years now, Julian Assange will agree to U.S. extradition, "despite clear unconstitutionality of DOJ case."

I don't imagine, Bill, but that's why Obama did it. It will be interesting to see if he goes through with that, though.


I think it's hard to underestimate how unpopular this will be with the national security and intelligence community. I mean, Manning released just thousands, tens of thousands, millions probably of documents.


They put a pretty big emphasis on operational security. And there was someone right on the front lines figuring out how to get into the system, take all this stuff, and not just sort of accidentally, but purposely download it, purposely give it to WikiLeaks, purposely make sure that it was released.

I guess this is great news for Donald Trump. I was taking about this. The national security and the intelligence community are pretty upset, in my judgment rightfully so, about some of the things Donald Trump has been saying about them. And now they're going to spend the rest of this week being more upset, I suspect, about President Obama.

TAPPER: It's interesting, Margaret, because President Obama has used the espionage to go after leakers more than every other president in history combined.

This has been a hallmark of his administration. It's something that a lot of us in the media have objected to time and time again. And here he is commuting the sentence of one of the most notorious leakers. You could argue that Chelsea Manning did it for a good reason, to expose war crimes, or whatever case you want to make.

But it certainly contradicts the last eight years of policy in terms of leaking. MARGARET TALEV, BLOOMBERG NEWS: If we get inside his head tomorrow at

this final news conference, as I hope we all do, or at least whatever version of being inside his head he agrees to show us, the politics of this is so interesting on so many levels, precisely because of that, because of the WikiLeaks connection, but also because this was a specific person whom the ACLU lobbied very hard for mercy and leniency on because of the gender reassignment issues, because of the suicide attempts, because of the age of then Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning.

So, to understand how much of this has had to do with trying to contextualize his legacy on punishing leakers vs. how much of this had anything to do with Julian Assange vs. how much of this had to do with the LGBT community, showing leniency for a person of that age who had emotional or mental concerns at the time, all of that is packed on some level into his decision-making.

And it will be -- it was like, why is he doing a news conference on the next-to-the-last day? Well, at least now we know some of the reason why.

TAPPER: And, Dave, I have to say, I mean, quite a banner six-month period for WikiLeaks, unquestionably had an effect on the election. And now their primary source of information, Chelsea Manning, at least originally, sentence, her sentence commuted.

I would think that possibly in the politics of it all, they would not want to give WikiLeaks the reward.

DAVID CATANESE, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": You have got to wonder what Hillary Clinton will think of this, and frankly national security experts, but I think some Democrats may come out and be opposed to this.

I mean, we will have to watch this play out. If you're looking for one rationale that President Obama may use, is that the sentence against Chelsea Manning was the most severe in U.S. history for a leak.

TAPPER: Thirty-five years. Yes.

CATANESE: Thirty-five years.

And she was already there for seven. So, that may be part of the explanation. But I think we will see a lot of comparisons between why her and not Edward Snowden. They will say she served her time, she came forward. Snowden obviously is out hiding, but this will now dominate his final news conference tomorrow.

KRISTOL: Here's the question. It was a court-martial, right, for Manning?


KRISTOL: What was the military's view on it? What was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' view? What were the service chiefs' view? That will be an interesting -- what was the secretary of defense's view? That will be interesting. Did Obama overrule that, in effect? Did he ask them? Are they learning about this as we are this afternoon? That would be an interesting question.

TAPPER: It's interesting also because I remember when the WikiLeaks happened. I was a White House correspondent, like you, Margaret. And I remember the White House was so outraged. They were so angry.

They were so convinced that these reams of documents, thousands and thousands of pages of documents, logs from Iraq, logs from Afghanistan, were going to reveal to our enemies sources and methods, individuals named in these documents.

Now, I don't know if there have actually been any victims as a result that you could clearly say this was WikiLeaked and therefore this person in Afghanistan or Iraq died. I don't know.

TALEV: Well, that is absolutely right.

That was the argument, that it had greatly compromised U.S. national security and that you had to make an example out of this sort of thing.

TAPPER: It's stunning.

What political ramifications? Do you agree with Bill that this will take some of the heat off of president-elect Trump perhaps?

CATANESE: I mean, I am curious to see how he reacts. I think we know how he's going to react. I would be surprised...

KRISTOL: I'm going to just take a wild guess.

TAPPER: You think via tweet?

KRISTOL: There will be a tweet in the next couple of hours.

CATANESE: I think multiple tweets, one of five.

But now this is going to dominate the conversation going into his inauguration. So, I agree that it probably gives him a bit of a bye. There are a lot of other things that he can do between now and then that could still harm that.

But I agree. On the overall presence, this can be a way to reach out maybe back to the intelligence community.


We just got a statement from Senator Tom Cotton. He is a Republican from Arkansas. He is, I believe, on the Armed Services Committee and he is a conservative Republican and a war veteran also.

He wrote: "When I was leading soldiers in Afghanistan, Private Manning was undermining us by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. 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. We ought not to treat a traitor like a martyr."

[16:45:00] And I will say that the way that Senator Cotton describes Private Manning is how the White House, when I was White House correspondent, described Private Manning as well. They were furious, they were outraged. They could -- they thought that those of us in the press who were reading these WikiLeaks, that we were doing something wrong by reading them, that -- now, there were incidents, we should point out, there were -- there was an incident with the helicopter in Iraq, the first WikiLeaks that came from Chelsea Manning that seemed to suggest that the U.S. military had killed some innocent civilians, I do remember that, but it was the -- I think the widespread, whole scale nature of this leak that was so shocking.

KRISTOL: I mean, if Private Manning knew about this one incident, then he -- now she could have released information about that one incident. Rather that - that's not what happened. It was hundreds of thousands of pages, so it was just a wholesale attempt to make everything we had done in Iraq and Afghanistan available to our enemies.

TALEV: So, Josh Earnest held his final briefing as White House Press Secretary today, and one of the questions that he received was, and it was sort of with Chelsea Manning in mind among others, that's known in mind, but also Bill Clinton's final act and the timing of the Marc Rich pardon. And the question was, basically, if you do a whole bunch of pardons or commutation and a couple of them are crazy, are we going to get a chance to ask you why, right? And Josh Earnest didn't directly answer the question, but sort of hinted that, yes, that the President Obama understands the history of kind of the entry or controversy of decisions in this wheel house, and wanted to take that into account that he did want to be available to answer questions. So, look, he's obviously considered everything that we're talking about here, including whether it's a give me for Trump, whether it's his stand in his final days, whether he can answer these questions, and I think he's certainly working on that response right now for tomorrow's news conference.

CATANESE: And I would have thought that President Obama wouldn't have done this. That would have been my bet 24 hours ago. Now -- I mean, but he must -- he knows now this is now a huge part of his legacy. As all his domestic accomplishments, I mean, this will now be a part of it, positive or negative, negative in a lot of sense that what Bill Clinton went through. That is going to be fascinating to me how he explains it. I think he's probably going to be prepared to explain it, but I also just get back, watch democrats on this because they're going to have to deal with a President-elect Trump, and they are going to want to define themselves particularly on national security and foreign policy, to oppose -- to pose his actions. Where will Chuck Schumer's statement be on this?

TALEV: To the right.

CATANESE: That is -- that is going to be fascinating to watch, I think. TAPPER: Well, that's a good point because republicans are -- have been in many ways trying to outflank Donald Trump on the right on this national security issues.

I just read that statement from Senator Tom Cotton, he joins us now live. Senator, your reaction to President Obama commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning? You seemed surprised.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, good afternoon, Jake. I am very surprised. Chelsea Manning pleaded guilty to very serious crimes, leaking highly-classified information that put at risk the lives of our troops and our diplomats, our intelligence officers, allies who have helped us around the world. This was grave harm to our national security and, you know, Chelsea Manning is serving a sentence and should continue to serve that sentence. There will be a time to review her sentence and seek a parole in the future. And according to normal criminal procedures, but for the president, especially a president who has made so much recently about the danger that WikiLeaks has posed our national security to commute Private Manning's sentence, I think is very disappointing.

TAPPER: The human rights community organizations like Amnesty have said that Chelsea Manning was exposing human rights abuses, and already had been over sentenced because the military through the Court Martial Process wanted to make an example of her. What do you make of that argument?

COTTON: Well, hundreds of thousands of pages of highly-classified information were disclosed and there's no doubt that it caused grave harm to our national security. And it's important that we have a deterrent effect by stiff penalties when a private in the United States Army takes actions that no one in the military should take. Certainly, a junior enlisted personnel. Again, Chelsea Manning's sentence would have been coming up for review and possible parole in the future. I wish Barack Obama would have allowed the military justice system to proceed in due course rather than short-circuiting the sentence 28 years before it was set to expire.

TAPPER: I remember when this happened, people in the national security community, people in the White House, were very, very concerned that these thousands upon thousands of pages of raw intelligence and information from the frontlines of Iraq, from the frontlines of Afghanistan, that they would expose our troops, our service members, diplomats and our allies to danger.

[16:50:02] I ask you this question and you might not have an answer and I do not think that, you know, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. But do you know of any incident where somebody actually, through these WikiLeaks, found somebody and caused them harm because of the WikiLeaks? Is there any evidence that happened?

COTTON: Jake, I don't want to speak about specific cases in part because of the classification levels involved, but I do want to say that it caused serious national security harm. And what President Obama has done today is going to cause harm as well, all around the world and virtually every country. There are people trying to decide whether they want to help America, whether they want to help our military, our intelligence agencies and our diplomats. And when they see someone like Chelsea Manning leak highly classified information that reveals those sources, and then they see our president not take seriously the criminal penalties that our military justice system has imposed on Private Manning, it will cause them pause in whether or not they can cooperate with America and remain safe in the future. So, this is not just past harm, this is ongoing future harm as well.

TAPPER: I want to ask you also, he also pardoned -- President Obama pardoned the former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a retired four-star general James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty last October to a single charge of making false statements to federal investigators. This is from an investigation in 2012 about who provided any information to reporters about this Stuxnet virus, the virus that crippled the Iranian nuclear program. Do you have any reaction to General Cartwright being pardoned?

COTTON: Jake, I don't have as firm a grasp of all the details in General Cartwright's case. I think he's taken responsibility and he recognized that he ought not to have conducted some of those interviews that he did. I don't think, though, it was a primary offense of being the first and only person to release sensitive secrets the way Private Manning did. And he did render many decades of faithful and honorable service to our country. So, I can't opine on it definitely, but it certainly doesn't cause me the grave concern that I have with Private Manning's commutation.

TAPPER: Were you in the service when -- were you actually in Afghanistan or Iraq when Private Manning leaked that information?

COTTON: When was the exact date on that, Jake?

TAPPER: It was 2009 or 2010. It was pretty -

TALEV: 2009.

TAPPER: -- 2009. I just wondered if you remember your reaction in the field.

COTTON: I was in Afghanistan in the first half of 2009. And if I recall, it happened in the second half. But, you know, coming back from Afghanistan and having -- seeing something like this happen, of course, it worried me gravely because of the number of Afghans that cooperated with us and did so on a secret basis, and the threats that it posed to them and some of the Iraqis that I've known from three years earlier, again, it's not just the danger to them, though, it's the danger going forward of our ability to win the support and cooperation. Many times in secret, foreigners around the world who want to help the United States.

TAPPER: I'm told it was 2010, still squares with your timeline. Senator Cotton, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. And let's go back to our panel right now. I think that that's probably going to be the reaction of democrats and republicans, Bill.

KRISTOL: Yes, and I think Senator Cotton was quick on his feet and privy to make it a forward looking issue, too, what is the effect of now what President Obama has done when someone else thinks, you know, I'm taking a risk cooperating with an American, and a dictatorship or something with intelligence agencies or in a war zone. And now, you know, they'll be - well, maybe on the American side who don't agree with the policy and leak against it, and now they think they'll kind of have a -- I mean, not that seven years is nothing, but that they'll have a radically less severe sentence than the military justice system gave them.

TALEV: Though, you know, I have to -- I'm trying to play this out in my mind, but it does strategically create a new kind of preview for President-elect Trump, of how the congress, both sides of the congress, will react to leniency on leakers. And whether that, you know, whether that creates a more laissez-faire approach to some of the stuff with WikiLeaks or Russia, or whether it, you know, tightens reaction around it, you'll now have republicans as well as democrats on record about what -- the step that President Obama has just taken and that will stand in comparison with Ed Snowden and with Julian Assange.

TAPPER: And David, I have to say, we haven't talked much about Edward Snowden, who unlike Chelsea Manning, fled the country. But also has an argument to make, whether you buy it or not, that he was doing something because the public of the United States needed to know what was going on in their name, and he was doing it in public interest. Again, that's his argument, not mine. But it is interesting that this -- that there was a move to do something for Chelsea Manning and decidedly not for Edward Snowden.

CATANESE: And it - and it seems like just reading the initial reports that the White House is going to argue that she paid time, that she --

TAPPER: Paid a price.

[16:54:57] CATANESE: -- paid a price, seven years in prison, while Snowden did not. I think that will be part of the argument tomorrow. But it's interesting just in listening to your interview with Senator Cotton, and I wonder if this will be the larger reaction, the difference between the reaction to Cartwright versus Manning. I think Manning is definitely going to -- going to, you know, gen up the controversy in all of this, but, you know, Cotton who's pretty good and probably one of the most toughest -- tougher on leaks than anybody, being his military service, you know, gave Cartwright sort of pass and -- but not on -- not on Manning.

TAPPER: All right. David, Margaret, Bill, thank you so much. Really appreciate it. That's it for me. We're going to have much more on the breaking news ahead with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM". Stay with us.