Politics & Policy

Abusing the WikiLeaker?

Bradley Manning is accused of a serious crime. If convicted, he deserves punishment. But he does not deserve arbitrary and pointless abuse.

Long before the P. J. Crowley flap, several liberal bloggers were arguing that Pfc. Bradley Manning — who is accused of facilitating last year’s WikiLeaks document dump, but who has not yet been tried — has improperly been held in solitary confinement for months.

This is a grave accusation. As Atul Gawande detailed in a disturbing 2009 New Yorker article, solitary confinement — the practice of denying a prisoner virtually all human contact, sometimes coupled with sensory deprivation — can severely and irreparably damage the human psyche. It should be used only on prisoners who are otherwise impossible to manage. There is no evidence whatsoever that Manning — whatever he did before being taken into custody — is such a prisoner.

The problem with this accusation, however, is that Manning is not actually in solitary confinement. According to the Department of Defense, Manning is treated like any other prisoner of his classification: a maximum-custody detainee on prevention-of-injury watch. He has a cell to himself, as do all prisoners at the facility, and he is allowed to speak with other prisoners, so long as the conversations are not “disruptive.”

Even Manning’s own lawyer, David E. Coombs, has admitted that the detainee is “not technically held in solitary confinement,” arguing instead that the conditions are “tantamount” to solitary confinement because there are no prisoners in the cells on either side of him. Talking with the nearest prisoners, Coombs writes, would require speaking loudly enough that the conversations would “probably” be seen as disruptive. There are conflicting accounts of how much access Manning has to television, newspapers, and outdoor recreation, as well as how soft his bedding is, but the “hole” from Shawshank Redemption, this is not.

That’s not to say, however, that the Quantico Marine Corps Brig’s treatment of Manning has been exemplary. He has yet to be convicted of a crime — and, regardless, prisons should avoid inflicting arbitrary and pointless miseries on their charges. Manning’s defense lawyer has made a plausible case — to which the Department of Defense has not issued a convincing rebuttal despite much public attention — that the prison staff has been doing just that in classifying Manning as a higher risk than he truly is. On at least two and possibly three occasions, prison officials have used their discretion to subject Manning to harsher procedures than would normally be used under the brig’s policies. Manning’s treatment may well be legal, as the general counsels of the Departments of Defense and of the Navy found — the policies in question are just guidelines — but that doesn’t make it right. The fact that the State Department’s P. J. Crowley spoke out against Manning’s treatment, however ill-considered the outburst was, should encourage Americans to demand a better explanation.

There are two elements to Manning’s classification. The first is “maximum custody,” meaning that, as Coombs summarizes,

PFC Manning is required to remain in his cell for 23 hours a day. Whenever he is moved outside of his cell, the entire facility is locked down. PFC Manning must wear hand and leg restraints when he is outside of his cell and is escorted by at least two guards whenever he is moved.

Such measures would be justified if Manning posed a threat of some kind. But the Department of Defense has provided no evidence that he has acted threatening in any way. As Manning noted recently in a memorandum requesting a new status, he was given a 5 on the classification scale last August — a scale that recommends “maximum custody” only at a score of 12 or higher. Prison officials overrode the score on the grounds that he had received a higher score in Kuwait, when it was still unclear how much danger he posed. If they had a good reason for doing so, they have not released it to the public.

The second element of Manning’s classification is “prevention-of-injury watch,” essentially a lesser form of suicide watch. Here’s how Coombs described the implications of this classification:

The guards check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay; PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or he is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure that he is okay. He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets. He is not allowed to have any personal items in his cell. He is only allowed to have one book or one magazine at any given time to read. The book or magazine is taken away from him at the end of the day before he goes to sleep. When he goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his underwear and surrender his clothing to the guards.

(The Department of Defense disputes some aspects of this summary — it says, for example, that Manning has a pillow — but you get the idea.)

Again, these measures would be defensible if Manning were actually a danger to himself. But the brig’s own mental-health professionals say he is not a suicide risk. Again prison officials have used their discretion to override these determinations.

The final exercise of discretion is less clearly problematic. Evidently, in January, Manning remarked — sarcastically, according to Coombs — that if he really wanted to kill himself, he could use the elastic band of his underwear. In response, prison officials put him on full suicide watch for several days and stripped him naked before bed each night; now, he’s allowed to wear only a special garment. From a distance, of course, it is not possible to tell how clear Manning’s sarcasm was.

Manning stands accused of a serious crime: The leaking of classified documents cannot be tolerated in a country that hopes to protect its citizens from foreign threats. Further, liberals exaggerate when they refer to Manning’s “solitary confinement.” Nonetheless, Manning is an American citizen in an American detention facility, and he has not yet been convicted. There is no excuse for subjecting him to harsh conditions, so long as he poses no threat to himself or others. The American people deserve an explanation as to why Manning remains in maximum custody and on prevention-of-injury watch.

— Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review.


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