If you're accused of leaking US military info, even Obama doesn't think you deserve a fair trial.
Drawing by Clark Stoekley via Flickr.
After more than 900 days of detainment in United States military jails for allegedly disclosing state secrets, the haunting imprisonment of accused WikiLeaks source Pfc. Bradley Manning was discussed in court for the first time at the latest round of pre-trial motion hearings that began on Nov. 27 in Fort Meade, MD. Below is an account of those court proceedings. The case will continue intermittently into 2013.
If there’s a bad time to discuss holiday shopping, it’s while waiting for someone to describe being tortured.
I was soaking wet and still half asleep when our driver turned to the back seat of the press shuttle and said something so totally irrelevant and ill-timed that I knew right then and there that she was either innocently naïve or politely completely-fucking-dumb.
“Can you believe it,” she said, “Christmas is already less than a month away.”
Festive cheer is not particularly on my mind, at least not on this Tuesday morning at Fort Meade, Maryland. The sprawling 6.6 square mile United States Army base just outside of Washington, DC is the venue for the pre-trial motion hearings in the case against Private First Class Bradley Manning. By the time the trial is over, a soldier considered a hero by some could be sentenced to life in prison. I was likely not the only one uninterested in having a holly jolly ol’ time, but that didn’t do anything to change the fact that our driver had just adjusted the FM dial to pick up “Santa Baby.”
When only 22 years old, Pfc. Manning was arrested at his barrack in Baghdad and dragged off to Kuwait, then to perhaps the worst locale yet – Quantico, Virginia – for the longest stretch of his two-and-a-half year imprisonment that’s been condemned by the United Nations and Nobel laureates as tantamount to torture. Pfc. Manning won’t be court-martialed by a military judge until next March, by which point he’ll likely have spent over 1,000 days – ten percent of his life – in solitary confinement.
This, of course, is because the US says Manning took 250,000 diplomatic embassy cables and a trove of sensitive military documents and sent them to the website WikiLeaks. Among the documents Pfc. Manning allegedly leaked are the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War Logs, secret diplomatic communications, and a video of US soldiers firing at Iraqi civilians and journalists from the air in a clip that was dubbed “Collateral Murder.”
"This is possibly one of the more significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare,” Pfc. Manning is alleged to have written of the footage. Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder currently sought for extradition from the UK to Sweden, credits those documents and particularly the video with ending a war that left over 4,400 Americans dead and countless Iraqis murdered.
“It was WikiLeaks’ revelations – not the actions of President Obama – that forced the US administration out of the Iraq War,” Assange wrote last month. “By exposing the killing of Iraqi children, WikiLeaks directly motivated the Iraqi government to strip the US military of legal immunity, which in turn forced the US withdrawal.”
But the Obama administration doesn’t consider Manning’s alleged actions heroic – they deem them treasonous. The indictment against Pfc. Manning has made him one of just a handful of Americans charged under the World War I era Espionage Act, and this week the court had to declassify a CD-ROM belonging to Osama bin Laden, presumably to prove that the al-Qaeda leader accessed the WikiLeaks files attributed to Manning thus justifying another charge he faces: aiding the enemy. That crime is punishable by death, but prosecutors have already acknowledged they won’t seek anything beyond a life sentence. Great.
It was overcast and gloomy as we made our way through the morning’s relentless rain towards the court early on Tuesday, the first day of the hearings. A throng of political protesters demonstrated their own country’s treatment of Manning. Just like with every motion hearing so far, they brandished protest signs saying “Free Bradley,” and wore matching T-shirts adorned with only the word “Truth.”
Soon we’d be shuffled into the tiny, 50-person-capacity courtroom, but for now we were in our cars, part of a caravan of two-dozen autos with hazards flashing as we meandered across Ft. Meade. Our trek through the base and toward the judge’s quarters seemed eerily like a slow march from mortuary to cemetery. The Christmas tunes didn't help either, by this point it was a dreadfully cheerful rendition of “Feliz Navidad.” Not exactly appropriate when we were preparing for at least a week of reports on the torture of a man not yet convicted of any crime.
At this point it was likely too late to break Manning. Since the summer of 2010 Pfc. Manning has been held in military custody, and sadly that was the reason a handful of us had assembled this week. The latest round of hearings would involve soul-crushing first-hand accounts of the nine months at Qauntico that had nearly killed the soldier. Defence attorney David Coombs is asking the court to dismiss all charges with prejudice due to alleged illegal pre-trial punishment that he says his client was subjected to in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the US Constitution. At a rare public appearance in Washington on December 3rd, Coombs said Pfc. Manning’s time at Quantico will forever be etched in history as “a disgraceful moment in time.”
Inside the courtroom Manning, now 24, looks as if he’s still in high school. He’s just five-two and weighs less than my last four girlfriends. His dashing blue military garb, particularly his fitted jacket donned with decorative accolades, dwarfs him, sleeves extending almost past the tips of his fingers. To say Pfc Manning looks like he’s playing dress-up would be pretty fair; the only difference is I've never seen a kid in high heels look so goddamn confident as Pfc Manning did in that court. Despite being detained for over 900 days and subjected to conditions considered cruel and inhuman by the UN, Pfc. Manning is not the ghost I expected.
Immediately upon his arrest on May 26, 2010, Manning was transferred to an 8’ x 8’ x 8’ wire mesh cage in Kuwait with just a toilet and a shelf to keep him company. He had confessed online to a supposed confidant earlier in the week that he had submitted compromised intelligence to WikiLeaks, only for that correspondence to be handed to the FBI.
“Hypothetical question: If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time ... say, eight to nine ... and you saw incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC ... what would you do?” Manning is alleged to have asked in an AOL chat with Adrian Lamo, a hacker whom the private had never met.
“I was the source of the 12 July 07 video from the Apache Weapons Team which killed the two journalists and injured two kids.”
Within hours, the soldier was shackled and succumbing to what he described in court as a complete and total breakdown.
“I just thought I was going to die in that cage. And that’s how I saw it – an animal cage,” he told the judge as he testified for the first time.
Pfc. Manning was held captive in Kuwait for nearly two months, but it wasn’t until he landed on American soil that the fury of Uncle Sam came crashing down in full. Weeks after being rushed out of Iraq, Manning found himself in full restraints onboard an airline en route to Baltimore, Maryland. It was only when the pilot announced the flight plan that the soldier was ever sure he knew where he was going: Military prisons in Germany and Guantanamo Bay all could have been possibilities, he thought. Ironically, a stay at Gitmo may have actually given the soldier more of a fighting chance at justice than what he and his legal team have had to endure during the last two years: The US has been sued by the Center for Constitutional Rights for the government’s failure to release court motion papers and transcripts – items the CCR say are easier to obtain in the cases involving al-Qaeda insurgents detained at the Cuban military jail.
Once in Baltimore, Pfc. Manning was loaded into a car and transferred to the military base in Quantico, Virginia. There he was held for nine months in maximum custody in a cell smaller than the one he saw overseas – just 6' x 8'. For only 20 minutes a day, Pfc. Manning was left to see the sunlight while shackled in chains. Other times, he found that if he arched his neck and angled himself just right he could catch the reflection of the sun from a window that was mirrored into his unimaginable concrete hellhole. Once inside his isolation chamber for the customary 23-and-a-half hours or so, he was deprived of just about everything, including contact with other inmates and often his clothes. He was forced to sleep from 1 PM to 11 PM, naked, and was allowed to do so only when facing his lamp.
"I started to feel like I was mentally going back to Kuwait mode, in that lonely, dark, black hole place, mentally," he said.
“The most entertaining thing in my cell was the mirror. You can interact with yourself. I spent a lot of time with it,” he told the court on Thursday.
For those nine months, Manning had to. His commanders at Quantico were put on the stand this week and testified that the soldier was regularly stripped of his underwear and flip-flops because he was classified consistently as prevention-of-injury, or POI, a status that made his imprisonment essentially on par with the strictest of solitary confinement sentences on the basis that he was a suicide risk.
Pfc. Manning was "as normal as a max prisoner would be,” Lance Corporal Joshua Tankersley told the court. Normal doesn’t necessarily have the same definition with military detention personnel as others.
"You would look in the mirror at yourself or stare at the wall.” That, said Tankersley, was normal behavior.
In the brig, Pfc. Manning was only allowed to make contact with the detainees directly on either side of his cell; for the duration of his extended stay, both rooms on the left and right remained vacant.
Sometimes, said Tankersley, POI status inmates were found snoozing. “And we catch them and wake them back up,” he said. “There's basically nothing to do.” Any time Pfc. Manning had to be moved from his cage, the entire facility was put in lockdown.
To pass the time, Pfc. Manning would dance. He’d dance alone and make funny faces, both habits his psychiatrist attested on the stand as being normal given his condition. Because he wasn’t allowed weights, he lifted imaginary ones to stay agile.
"I would pace around, walk around, shuffling, any type of movement. I was trying to move around as much as I could,” he said. "I would practice various dance moves. Dancing wasn't unauthorised as exercise."
When asked to explain in court this week why nine months of maximum custody was necessary, his jailers gave varying answers akin to what would be expected for such strict handling: He could have harmed himself; he could have been harmed by others; he wasn’t mentally sound. Upon cross-examination, though, other information was unearthed revealing that the egregious conditions could easily be viewed as imputative, not imperative.
In multiple instances, the Quantico guards admitted that they subjected Manning to harsh treatment because the very antics he used to amuse himself in his cage were giving them cause for concern.
“His erratic behavior” was reason for putting him in protected watch, said Col. Dan Choike, the brig commander at the base
“His acting out, playing pee-a-boo, licking the bars on the cell itself. Different dancing. Erratic dancing.”
“Erratic dancing?” asked Coombs.
In another example, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. William Fuller cited Manning’s “little interest in discussion" as a reason to him as POI. Col. Choike, the brig chief, had similar rationale.
He was “withdrawn, depressed,” Col. Choike said of Pfc. Manning.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy that was going to sit there and talk to you, his jailers, ad nausea?" Coombs asked Choike, deadpan.
“Would you agree with me that if you’re talking with your jailers and you make causal conversation and then they use that casual conversation to take away your underwear from you, then you might stop talking to your jailer?” he asked.
Upon further questioning, Quantico staffers acknowledged that the severity of the charge – although not yet formally introduced by the government – also warranted harsher imprisonment. While innocent until proven guilty is the norm for civilians, Manning hasn’t been awarded that luxury of democratic society.
“The United States government with all of its resources, all of its personnel, I see them standing against me and Brad, and I have to admit to you – that could be rather intimidating” Coombs told the crowd in DC during his first and likely only public appearance before his client’s court-martial. "I was intimidated. Especially when the president of the United States says your client broke the law. Especially when Congress members say your client deserves the death penalty.”
Supporters of the soldier have argued that President Obama’s extrajudicial declaration of Pfc. Manning’s guilt during a candid moment caught on camera last year may influence the military’s eventual court decision. During his turn cross-examining the Army’s witnesses, Coombs made it clear that his client was not accommodated like any other inmate at Quantico. Sgt. Fuller told that court that in his 17 years in military corrections, most inmates were listed POI for "a few days. No more than a week." Manning was held in maximum confinement for nine months.
When a forensic psychiatrist was eventually commissioned to assess Manning at the brig, repeated recommendations were made to remove him from protected watch, which left him forced to cover himself with only a suicide smock and bedding that resembled something between a cardboard box and a liquidation sale rug. Those professional suggestions were all ignored in favour of the guards’ own instincts. Many of those staffers testified that they were trained in corrections for one month at an Air Force base in Texas and rightfully admitted that the guidelines for dealing and assessing with a suicide case that they were taught there were thrown out the window when Private Manning arrived.
On Saturday afternoon, five days into the latest round of hearings, Quantico Staff Sgt. Fuller acknowledged that he routinely signed off on keeping Pfc. Manning a max custody detainee, and cited his reasons specifically for the court.
“Those times that I actually did have interaction or communication with Manning, it seemed he was distant, withdrawn, or isolated. That gave me cause for concern,” he told the court. When asked him to explain why he was worried, Fuller said, “I’m not sure why. You really couldn’t get him to talk.”
Quantico guards also testified that for initial health evaluations, a dentist was the qualified physician tasked with assessing Manning’s mental wellbeing.
“Why were you getting weekly updates from a dentist as opposed getting them directly from a forensic psychiatrist?” Coombs asked Col. Choike.
“She was the commanding officer,” he said.
At Quantico, Pfc. Manning's treatment wasn’t by the book: the sleep depravation and stripping of clothes; the humiliation; the taunts and mockery; the nine months of putting him in protected custody citing concerns over suicide – concerns that were rebuffed relentlessly by both Pfc. Manning himself and qualified psychiatrists. That’s why Coombs is looking to have the case against his client thrown out, and Manning’s own testimony this week only accentuated the living nightmare he was made to endure for nearly a year. As testimonies from Quantico staff, health professionals, and the private himself continued late into the night all week, more unravelled about not just the torturous conditions imposed on Pfc. Manning but the blatant mismanagement in the same institution he is accused of blowing the whistle on.
On Wednesday, the night of Manning’s first day of testimony, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke to CNN and declared that “The case is not about whether Bradley Manning allegedly stole cables or not. The case is about the abuse of Bradley Manning.”
Days earlier, Assange had again appealed the actions that his accused source is credited with contributing to the annals of history.
“The material that Bradley Manning is alleged to have leaked has highlighted astonishing examples of U.S. subversion of the democratic process around the world, systematic evasion of accountability for atrocities and killings, and many other abuses,” he wrote.
During his address in DC, Coombs didn’t come close to buying Assange’s hyperbole. He did, however, acknowledge that the circumstances in the case against Manning – and to a lesser degree, other whistleblowers charged under Obama – have very real implications for everyone in the country.
“When you look at the offense of aiding the enemy and take it out of this case and simply say, ‘If you can possibly aid the enemy by giving information to the press with no intent that that information land in the hands of the enemy, and by that mere action alone you could be found to have aided the enemy,’ that’s a scary proposition,” said Coombs. “Right there that would silence a lot of critics of our government, and that’s what makes our government great, in that we foster that criticism and often times when its deserved, we make changes. “
“Last Tuesday, the president of the United States signed into law the Whistleblower Enhanced Protection Act,” he continued. “As President Obama was signing this bill into law, Brad and I were in the courtroom for the start of his unlawful pre-trial punishment motion.”
Coombs paused, dumbfounded.
“How can you reconcile the two?”
“I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Before wrapping up his remarks, Coombs acknowledged Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon staffer who spent countless hours inside the Department of Defence photocopying classified logs of the Vietnam War to release what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg, perhaps the country’s most recognised whistleblower, has saluted Pfc. Manning as his own personal hero.
“One of our nations most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, has on multiple occasions spoken out for Brad,” said Coombs. “History has been the ultimate judge of his courage and sacrifice. History has judged him well. I hope that history will judge Private first class Manning.”
History however, is going to take it's sweet time. During the latest round of motion hearings, Pfc Manning’s court-martial was yet again postponed, this time from February to March. When the trial is convened next spring, Manning will have spent over 1,000 days in prison.
Someday, says Coombs, Brad Manning wants to walk out of his cell, earn a degree, enter public service, and perhaps even run for office.
“I want to make a difference in this world,” the soldier said to Coombs.
If one outcome occurs, Pfc. Manning will be stuck behind bars for acts of espionage and aiding the enemy, for, well, ever. In another, he’s renowned as a patriot and a hero. Either way, his life has already been ravaged by a flawed system.
No matter the verdict, at Ft. Meade this weekend, Pfc. Manning looked determined to fight. He did not look dead, like his treatment the last two and a half years might suggest. He acknowledged the dozen supporters who had sat through 12 hours of arguments in a cramped military courthouse.
“I’m confident that by the time this case comes to a conclusion, the record of trial will be the longest record of trial in our military’s history,” said Coombs, “and that record will reflect one thing: that we fought at every turn, at every opportunity, and we fought to assure that Brad received a fair trial.”
When I last saw Pfc Manning, he was brought out of the court, hands shackled, flanked by two deputies equipped with semi-automatic assault rifles as they ushered him into a SUV and sent him back to whatever cage he now occupies. It was cold, and the radio in the nearest car belonging to the Ft. Meade media convoy was predictably tuned to the hits of the holiday.
“Can you believe it?” the press liaison said as I tried to defog my camera lens. “Less than three shopping weeks left.” You know what? I really can.
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