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Ex-CIA Chief Woolsey Voices Concern About Chelsea Manning's Commutation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Obama defended his decision to commute Chelsea Manning's prison sentence at his final press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. So 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.

MARTIN: But for some inside the military and the intelligence community, that is not good enough. Among them is James Woolsey. He served as CIA director under President Bill Clinton and before that was undersecretary of the Navy. More recently, he was an adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.

Mr. Woolsey, thanks for being with us.

JAMES WOOLSEY: Good morning, Rachel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: How did you feel about the president's decision to commute Chelsea Manning's sentence?

WOOLSEY: I thought it was a very bad decision. Chelsea Manning turned loose a huge volume of secret and above information, essentially to the public. And if you turn it over to the public, you turn it over to the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, etc. It seems that people who do this, such as Chelsea Manning, don't understand that the volume of releases makes it possible for people like the Russians or the North Koreans to cross-check things and to learn things that they wouldn't have learned if there had just been, you know, one or two messages or something like that. I think it's a serious blow to American intelligence and to our military. And I do not think Chelsea Manning should be released this soon. I think the president was quite wrong to do this.

MARTIN: So even though the president pointed out that Manning did serve time - served seven years, went to trial, took responsibility for her crime - you wanted to see her fulfill her entire sentence?

WOOLSEY: Well, the seven years is about sort of average for spies from friendly countries like, say, South Korea or the Philippines who don't damage the United States hugely. It's kind of the regular sentence. And because of the amount of material that Chelsea Manning stole and released to our enemies, I think it should have been definitely a longer sentence, yes.

MARTIN: Although, a task force that investigated the impact of leaks on behalf of the Defense Department in 2013 said they'd uncovered no specific examples of anyone who lost his or her life in relation to the Manning leaks.

WOOLSEY: Well, that's not the way it happens. People get led off into the dark of night if they're found to be doing something for the United States, and you don't hear from them again.

And this is really a - I mean, I had an experience when I was director of Central Intelligence back in the Clinton administration. We realized that something that was about to be written because the journalists had spoken to us to clear something and was about to be turned loose would have uncovered some extremely important intelligence assets of the United States and gotten several people killed. And we could not get the system to listen to us, and so I paid a single call on the head of this news organization - won't name the one, even now - and went through, in detail, exactly how people were going to die as a result of printing, in this case, it was the date...

MARTIN: Yeah.

WOOLSEY: ...So not something that people would notice that much.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this. Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden release troves of other classified material - he was on this program yesterday. And he said Chelsea Manning was given a disproportionately tough sentence while General David Petraeus, who also leaked classified material, avoided felony charges and served no prison time.

WOOLSEY: Well, I think, you know, if you are of a cast of mind that wants to help Snowden and the way you choose to do it is by making Snowden's efforts look small, I think, you know, you can do that. It's a free country. You can say what you want to say. But I really think that trying to minimize this is ridiculous.

MARTIN: Do you think David Petraeus was let off the hook?

WOOLSEY: Well, I think one wants to - one needs to look at the volume of material and what happened. He showed it to his biographer apparently. And I don't recall the amount, but it was a most unwise decision for someone with his background and experience. But the volume of material, as I recall, was quite small.

MARTIN: The Obama administration made a point of cracking down on government leakers in a way that set it apart from previous administrations. Do you expect Donald Trump to repeat that, or do you expect Donald Trump to come down even tougher?

WOOLSEY: I don't know. I think the toughness of sentencing and the like should depend on several things - motivation, length of time compared to other people in similar circumstances. But it shouldn't be just universally low because one feels sorry for the person who did this. He pardoned the Puerto Rican terrorist who had been responsible for deaths the same day. And that is not the way to stop people from giving away the country's secrets and from acts of terrorism.

MARTIN: Former director of the CIA James Woolsey, thank you so much.

WOOLSEY: Thank you very much. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.