Is Bradley Manning Being Tortured?

The case of Bradley manning being held in a military brig in Quantico, VA has become a national referendum on what constitutes torture, and has divided the WikiLeaks supporters and critics even further.  For a recap of the story, see this Washington Post piece.  Basically, the story is this: Bradley Manning is a private in the Army that served as an intelligence data analyst.  He entered the Army at 22 and was placed in Iraq with access to classified information on a regular basis.  He was detained by the government on allegations that he knowingly passed videos and data files to WikiLeaks.  He has neither been charged, nor convicted of anything up to this point.  The real genesis of the controversy is the manner in which he is being held in Virginia.  No one, including myself, is arguing that he should not be detained if indeed he may be guilty of a crime against the government.  But what people, mainly Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, are arguing against is the solitary confinement of Manning.

According to a story by Greenwald on Salon.com titled The Inhumane Conditions of Bradley Manning’s Detention,

“From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement.  For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell.  Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions.  For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch).  For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.  Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.”

Greenwald prefaces all of this by making the claim that the manner of this detention is grossly disproportionate to what Manning has not even been charged with.  Indeed, in many countries including the U.S., Manning’s treatment would be considered torture.  From the beginning, Mr. Manning was deemed a “Maximum Custody Detainee,” the highest level of military detainees.  Since then, he has been described as a “model detainee,” by Mr. Greenwald, “without any episodes of violence or disciplinary problems.”  In fact, Manning is also being held under what is referred to as a POI order, or Prevention of Injury order, which, according to David House (who is one of the few people that has been granted access to Manning) “limits his social contact, news consumption, ability to exercise, and that places restrictions on his ability to sleep.”

As you can imagine, this story has sparked debate across a wide spectrum.  What I think is the most interesting about this case is that the US government is responding to the release of secret documents with more secrecy and contradictions (which I’ll explain later), and no one really seems to care, for the most part.  This story has recently gotten more press, thanks in large part to the piece mention above on Salon, but I would venture to say that unless you are tuned into the avenues in which this is being discussed that it is largely not on most Americans’ radars.  There is a Twitter battle going on between Glenn Greenwald and Wired magazine, where Greenwald is pushing for the release of chat logs that a staff writer for Wired has that are exchanges with Manning that may prove one way or the other what connection, if any, Manning has with WikiLeaks.  There is a video clip that was on Democracy NOW! where Mr. Greenwald is describing his story and the treatment of PFC Manning.  This is not something that is covered on the local morning news, or even on most of the major national networks (the only major network to have featured this story on their front page so far is MSNBC.com).

The government is likely pursuing these methods with Manning in hopes that he will give them something that can be used against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.  The US hopes to show that Assange pushed Manning to retrieve the classified files.  But as Greenwald has pointed out, charging and convicting Assange under those allegations would in turn say that the basis of investigative journalism would then be illegal, since most of what Pulitzer prize winning investigators do is to coax secret stories out of their sources.

As for the question of if the way Manning is being held is torture, the answers can be found in what many people say is the definitive study on the subject that was written by Atul Gawande and published in The New Yorker, titled Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?” Basically, Gawande’s conclusion after his study is that , yes, long-term solitary confinement is indeed torture.  The effects actually manifest themselves physically:

“…what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”
I believe the detention to be inhumane and torturous.  Yes, Manning may have committed a crime.  No, no one has been killed as a result of what he may have leaked.  He may be found guilty of doing exactly what the government thinks he has done.  But until he has been proven guilty, holding him in the same way as some convicted terrorists seems outrageous and egregious.

It’s interesting how the national debate has become whether or not what WikiLeaks and Manning are accused of is right or wrong, legal or illegal, and not a debate about the subject matter of the actual leaks.  For instance, some of the video that Manning is said to have provided to WikiLeaks shows a US helicopter squad killing unarmed civilians and two journalists.  This was bigger news earlier in the year when it was released, but the debate seems to have disappeared since.  There are literally thousands of other leaks like this, detailing unethical dealings of world leaders and many other political atrocities.

Hopefully the Bradley Manning story can put some of the emphasis back on topics like these.
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