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Saturday 21 April 2018

Barack Obama defends decision to commute Chelsea Manning's sentence

President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference. (AP)
President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference. (AP)
Barack Obama has commuted the sentence for 209 inmates (AP)

US President Barack Obama has defended his decision to cut nearly three decades off Chelsea Manning's prison term.

The outgoing president argued in his final White House news conference that the former Army intelligence analyst had served a "tough prison sentence" already.

Mr Obama said he granted clemency to Manning because she had gone to trial, taken responsibility for her crime and received a sentence that was harsher than other leakers have received.

He emphasised that he had merely commuted her sentence, not granted a pardon, which would have symbolically forgiven her for the crime.

"I feel very comfortable that justice has been served," Mr Obama said.

Manning was convicted in 2013 of violating the Espionage Act and other crimes for leaking more than 700,000 classified documents while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.

Formerly known as Bradley Manning, she declared as transgender after being sentenced to 35 years in prison. She had served more than six years before Mr Obama commuted her sentence on Tuesday, with a release date set for May.

"The notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital, classified information would think that it goes unpunished, I don't think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served," Mr Obama said.

Mr Obama said he saw no contradiction in granting clemency to Manning even as he warns about Russia's hacking of the US presidential campaign, in which stolen emails were released publicly by WikiLeaks.

He said he was not motivated by WikiLeaks' recent pledge on Twitter that founder Julian Assange would agree to extradition to the US if Mr Obama commuted Manning's sentence.

"I don't pay much attention to Mr Assange's tweets, so that wasn't a consideration," the president said.

Mr Obama's comments came as he prepares to exit the presidency after eight years marked by major victories on healthcare, the economy and climate change, along with disappointments over his inability to achieve his goals on immigration, gun control and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

He also wound down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but wrestled with other security threats posed by the Islamic State group and the Syrian civil war he was unable to resolve.

Even many of Mr Obama's proudest achievements, like the "Obamacare" healthcare overhaul, stand to be rolled back or undermined by President-elect Donald Trump, a shadow that hangs over Mr Obama's legacy as he leaves office.

The formal end comes on Friday when Mr Obama and Mr Trump will travel by motorcade together for Mr Trump's swearing-in before Mr Obama, then an ex-president, flies with his family to California for a holiday.

Appearing for the last time in front of the White House seal, Mr Obama also defended his administration's rapprochement with Cuba and his eleventh-hour move to end the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that lets any Cuban who makes it to US soil stay and become a legal resident.

Ending the visa-free path was the latest development in a warming of relations that has included the easing of the US economic embargo and the restoration of commercial flights between the US and the small island nation.

Mr Obama and his aides have said he plans to assume a low profile in the months after he leaves office, and to avoid commenting on politics on a daily basis unless Mr Trump pursues policies he finds particularly offensive.

Mr Obama plans to write a book, raise money to develop his presidential library, and work on a Democratic initiative to prepare for the 2020 round of congressional redistricting.

"I want to be quiet a little bit, and not hear myself talk so darn much," Mr Obama said.

But he was insistent he would not stay silent if Mr Trump tried to deport children brought to the US illegally, a group Mr Obama has sought to protect through executive action.

"That would merit me speaking out," Mr Obama said.

Although Mr Obama had long intended to take one last round of questions before leaving office, White House officials said that in recent days, Mr Obama became intent on using the occasion to draw a symbolic contrast with Mr Trump on issues of accountability and press freedoms.

Mr Trump's team has said it is considering changes to the traditional daily press briefing and to the location of news conferences, stoking concerns among journalists that their ability to cover the presidency may be scaled back.

Mr Obama alluded to those concerns in his opening remarks, noting the role the press plays in American democracy.

"It doesn't work if we don't have a well-informed citizenry, and you are the conduit," Mr Obama said. He said he hoped the press would "continue with the same tenacity that you showed us, to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories."

Mr Obama opted to hold his final news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room, rather than in the East Room or another location, to help emphasise the point, officials said.


Press Association

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