December 11, 2012
WikiLeaks Case Lawyer Chides Marine Jailers on Manning’s Treatment
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
FORT MEADE, Md. — Supervisors at the Marines’ Quantico brig imprisoned Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of secret government documents to WikiLeaks, in unduly harsh and restrictive conditions over nearly nine months for “no legitimate nonpunitive reason,” his lawyer argued on Tuesday at the conclusion of a pretrial hearing.
In two and a half hours of closing arguments, the defense lawyer, David Coombs, stitched together threads from about 1,200 e-mails and several weeks of testimony by more than a dozen officials. He detailed a nine-month period when his client was kept in an isolated cell under constant observation for more than 23 hours a day, was shackled during limited exercise periods and was at times not allowed his clothing and glasses — for arbitrary reasons, he said.
“They were more concerned with how it would appear if something happened” to Private Manning on their watch than with whether the restrictions were necessary, Mr. Coombs said. “What happened here is a complete breakdown of the way the system is supposed to work.” He said nobody stopped to say, “Wait a minute, does Pfc. Manning really need to stay” under the strict conditions.
But on Tuesday afternoon, a military prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, portrayed Private Manning as an erratic prisoner who had made statements indicating that he might be suicidal. He said the officials were only trying to protect him from himself and ensure that he would face trial.
Brig officials were struggling to deal with “someone who is not like others,” he said, adding, “They knew something was different and tried to essentially figure it out to the best of their ability.”
Private Manning is scheduled to stand trial before a court-martial in March, accused of downloading archives of hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents from a classified computer system and sending them to WikiLeaks. He is facing a potential life sentence if convicted of all the charges, including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act.
Mr. Coombs, asserting that the pretrial conditions were unlawful, has asked the judge to throw out the charges — a remedy few think likely; Private Manning has already offered to plead guilty to some lesser charges — or grant leniency in an eventual sentencing, including a 10-for-1 credit for much of the time Private Manning served at Quantico, in Virginia. This pretrial hearing was essentially a miniature trial to address that motion. Major Fein said Private Manning deserved seven days of credit for time served at sentencing.
The military judge, Denise Lind, said she would rule on the motion “in due course.” Several additional days of hearings on pretrial motions are scheduled for early next year.
The case has become a cause célèbre among those who consider Private Manning to be a whistle-blower. Among them, Max Obuszewski of Baltimore, stood in front of the gate to Fort Meade with a sign reading “Honk for Bradley Manning.”
“Anybody who has looked at the WikiLeaks documents would understand that Bradley Manning’s release of these documents showed the complicity of the U.S. government with dictators in the Middle East,” he said. “Bradley Manning’s actions helped bring about the Arab Spring.”
At the hearing, Private Manning sat quietly watching as the two lawyers argued over how to interpret a timeline of events after his arrest in the summer of 2010.
While in confinement in Kuwait, before his arrival at Quantico, Private Manning had a mental breakdown — in which he “lost control, screaming, shaking, babbling,” Major Fein said, and made two nooses. When he was taken to Quantico, he checked “yes” on an intake form that asked whether he had ever considered suicide, adding, “always planning never acting.”
Soon, however, he stabilized, in the eyes of psychologists at Quantico. But prison officials were wary, in part because of the suicide of another prisoner at the brig, an event Mr. Coombs said caused them not to trust one of the psychologists who concluded that Private Manning was not suicidal. So they kept him in maximum security and “prevention of injury” conditions throughout that fall and early winter.
On Jan. 18, 2011, Private Manning had an anxiety attack in a recreation room that left him in tears. Three days later he went before a board to argue that he should have the security restrictions loosened, telling them that his statement “always planning never acting” had been false.
An official asked him whether his current statement that he was not suicidal might not also be false, and he replied yes. And in early March, speaking to a sergeant at the brig, he said he could kill himself with the elastic of his underwear if he wanted. A recently installed brig commander responded by ordering his underwear taken from him at night, and he stopped communicating with prison officials.
Major Fein said that such behavior, against the baseline of the Kuwait episodes, justified brig officials’ decision to keep him under tight control. But Mr. Coombs said it was rational for Private Manning to stop talking because what he portrayed as innocent or joking remarks were being used as “ammunition” to justify restrictions.
As for the anxiety attack, Mr. Coombs said, “being treated almost like a zoo animal for that period of time has to weigh heavily on someone’s psyche,” adding that it was “amazing” that there were not more episodes the government could point to.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 13, 2012
An earlier version misidentified the prison official to whom Private Manning said that he could kill himself with his underwear. It was a sergeant, who relayed the information to a newly installed brig commander. Private Manning did not make the remark directly to the commander. © 2012 The New York Times Company
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