Saving Private Manning

The accused leaker of classified information picks a good week to tell his story of mistreatment and abuse.


Whatever else he is, Private Bradley Manning is still presumed innocent until proven guilty. And whatever else he happens to mean to you or to this nation, whatever else he has come to symbolize during his brief time in the world's harsh glare, he is still an American citizen and we are still a nation of laws. This past week, Pvt. Manning finally came to court in the Pentagon's big WikiLeaks case against him-- to both accuse and to confess-- and his timing could hardly have been better.

Pvt. Manning spoke about prisoner abuse at his pretrial hearing in Ft. Meade, Maryland, the same week a sitting U.S. senator, himself a former military prosecutor, called our detainees at Guantanamo Bay "crazy bastards." That senator is Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, whose consistent misjudgments about those men (the unconstitutional Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the unconstitutional Military Commissions Act of 2006, etc.) are a big part of the reason why so many of them, a decade after they were first captured, still have never been tried, either by military tribunal down at Gitmo or in federal civilian court.

Pvt. Manning, widely accused of committing "biggest security breach" in the nation's history, spoke about harsh psychological treatment the same week another senator, Diane Feinstein, the Democrat from California, released to the public the typically trenchant work of the General Accountability Office. Asked to determine where the 167 or so Gitmo prisoners could safely be sent within the United States should the Cuban facility be closed, the federal fact-finders came back with an answer-- 104 places!-- but also a stern and timely reminder to lawmakers and bureaucrats that our federal prison system already is 38 percent overcrowded.

Pvt. Manning, who is in the process of pleading guilty to seven of the charges against him, spoke about mental illness under confinement the same week a federal judge in Denver was poised to issue a critical pretrial ruling in two important civil rights lawsuits over the deplorable conditions and the mental health mistreatment of inmates at the Bureau of Prison's infamous "Supermax" facility near Florence, Colorado. U.S. District Judge Richard Match soon will decide whether to require the Obama Administration to make prison officials and their records available for review by the plaintiffs in those pending cases.

Pvt. Manning, in custody now since May 2010 while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange nurtures his asylum, spoke about going mad, and trying to stay sane, in captivity the same week a federal trial judge in Miami granted Jose Padilla extra time before his re-sentencing on terror conspiracy charges. You remember Jose Padilla, don't you? He is the U.S. citizen who was once called the "dirty bomb" suspect and then subjected to Bush-era interrogation tactics which then drove him into madness. When it came time for the feds to prosecute Padilla, however, it was for a bush-league conspiracy supported by barely any evidence.

Pvt. Manning, against whom prosecutors plan to introduce newly declassified evidence from Osama bin Laden's computer, spoke about excessive detention measures the same week Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson gave an important speech in England in which he suggested that our war against Al Qaeda ultimately may reach "a tipping point" after which the terror organization will "no longer" be "able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States." Whether that happy day is five years away, or 20, or 100, Johnson could not say.

Pvt. Manning is no hero to me. But the treatment he allegedly endured by his military captors-- without yet being found guilty of anything-- is deeply troubling for what it says about the Obama Administration's core values as the war on terror enters its second decade. The power of Manning's tale of woe isn't just that this physical and psychological abuse allegedly happened to him. The power is that the allegations he raises have been raised consistently recently by less famous criminal defendants all over the nation. These stories, taken as a whole, suggest America's arc of justice is bending away from respect for basic human rights.

First, we treated foreign-born terror suspects this way after 9/11 (which is another reason why we are having so much trouble prosecuting them today). Next we treated American-born terror suspects this way (which is why Jose Padilla, of all people, has become a human rights symbol). And now comes Pvt. Manning to tell us that we are treating non-violent American leakers of information this way. Read Padilla's account of his detention, then read  Manning's account, then read the allegations in these Supermax cases. The patterns are striking.

Convicted or not, mentally ill at the time they entered prison or not, the men in these stories, including Pvt. Manning, are all testifying to the same policies and practices employed by their captors. The harsh terms of detention makes these men mad, there are not nearly enough prison doctors to treat them, the mental illness of inmates get them in more trouble, the trouble then is used to justify harsher terms of confinement, which only exacerbates the mental illness of the prisoner, which only burdens prison staff even more. A lawyer in the Supermax cases calls the Colorado prison the "monster factory" for this very reason.

It's too early to know if the Obama Administration is going to accept Pvt. Manning's early plea overtures, which would result in a prison sentence of up to 16 years. And it's likely too much to ask his judge to dismiss the charges against him at this stage. But we should be paying close attention to what the accused is telling us in this case: The mistreatment of American prisoners, including pretrial suspects, is bad and getting worse. There is precious little accountability over those who make and enforce these policies. And the rest of the world is watching and judging how the rest of us respond to the challenge these sad cases represent.