Bradley Manning’s “no touch” torture

The movie “X2: X-Men United” begins with the super-villain Magneto in solitary imprisonment in a clear plastic cell suspended in mid-air.  His captors hope, in vain, that his conditions of captivity will prevent him from using super-powers to escape.

Bradley Manning out of uniform

Pfc. Bradley Manning, awaiting trial on charges of disclosing thousands of confidential diplomatic files to Wikileaks, has no super-powers.  Yet he is confined under these conditions.

At Quantico, Manning was placed in solitary confinement under “maximum custody” and a restrictive “Prevention of Injury” order while he awaits trial.

Those restrictions include:

* Detained in his cell for 23 hours a day

* Guards must check on Manning every 5 minutes, and he must reply

* Not allowed to have a pillow or a blanket.

* Not allowed to sleep between 5am and 8pm, with heavy restrictions when he is allowed to sleep.

* Not allowed any substantive exercise.

* No communication allowed beyond a limited list approved by the brig commander. All other letters must be destroyed.

* Not allowed to watch national news.


What’s so terrible about that?  It is not as if his tongue is being cut out, as happened to some Iraqis who spoke disrespectfully of Saddam Hussein or his sons.  No, his body will not be mutilated, but he is being tortured nevertheless.

The U.S. State Department in its human rights reports on other countries describes solitary confinement as a form of torture.  An article in The New Yorker magazine last year told how prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons destroys prisoners mentally; they either become passive, child-like and obedient, or uncontrollably violent.  John McCain once said that when he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, solitary confinement was worse than physical abuse – which, given the physical abuse he suffered, is an extremely powerful statement.

Experiments with mice, rats and monkeys show that animals deprived of physical contact with other living things become incapable of functioning.  Memoirs of American servicemen imprisoned by the North Vietnamese and of Soviet prisoners in the Gulag tell of tapping on the walls of their cells to make contact with other human beings, and of how this human contact enable them to survive mentally.

These ex-prisoners of the Communists tell of how they maintained their sanity through physical and mental exercise – working mathematical problems, recalling and mentally reciting poetry and Bible verses, playing old movies in their minds, prayer and meditation, mental baseball, anything that would give the mind a focus.

Manning is systematically prevented from doing this.  He is forbidden to do push-ups or knee-bends; his only permitted exercise is walking (but not jogging) aimlessly in an empty room for one hour a day.  Every five minutes, his captors interrupt any chain of thought he may have by asking him if he is okay and demanding he reply.  The lights are on in his cell 24 hours a day, so that day or night are the same – except that he is allowed to sleep only between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., in boxer shorts on a bed with no sheets, and subject to being waked up whenever his guards can’t see his face.

This is being done to someone who has not been convicted of anything, and who, by all accounts, has been a model prisoner.  Why?  I can think of three possible explanations, not mutually exclusive.

(1) Pure spite and sadistic cruelty.

(2) To instill fear in others who might be tempted to follow his example.  What Manning is going through is more terrifying than any punishment prescribed by law.

(3) To induce Manning to testify, truly or falsely, against Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  The U.S. government is in the embarrassing position of having declared Assange its Public Enemy No. One without first figuring out what, if any law, he has broken.  Attorney-General Eric Holder is said to be thinking of charging Assange with “conspiracy,” which is the crime of helping somebody else plan or commit a crime.  I don’t see how he could do that without showing that Assange and Manning had some kind of personal contact.  Assange denies this, but maybe Manning can be induced to say otherwise.

The U.S. government need not come up with evidence sufficient to convict Assange in court, only evidence sufficient to take him into custody.  The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has claimed the authority to hold people indefinitely and put them on trial only when and if a guilty verdict is certain. Bradley Manning’s treatment is a only a taste of what Julian Assange would suffer if he fell into the hands of U.S. security agencies.

Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist and expert on the effects of torture, wrote:

Solitary confinement is an assault on the body and psyche of an individual. It deprives him of species-specific forms of physical, sensory and social interaction with the environment and other human beings. Manning reported last weekend [now weekend before last]  he had not seen sunlight in four weeks, nor does he interact with other people but a few hours on the weekend. The human nervous system needs a certain amount of sensory and social stimulation to retain normal brain functioning. The effects of this deprivation on individuals varies, and some people are affected more severely or quickly, while others hold out longer against the boredom and daily grind of dullness that never seems to end.

Over time, isolation produces a particular well-known syndrome which is akin to that of an organic brain disorder, or delirium. The list of possible effects upon a person is quite long, and can include an inability to tolerate ordinary stimuli, sleep and appetite disturbances, primitive forms of thinking and aggressive ruminations, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, agitation, panic attacks, claustrophobia, feelings of loss of control, rage, paranoia, memory loss, lack of concentration, generalized body pain, EEG abnormalities, depression, suicidal ideation and random, self-destructive behavior. …

Isolation is a technique well-known to break down individuals. Why does the U.S. government wish to break down Bradley Manning? Is it to get him to confess, to force a plea bargain, to implicate Julian Assange or other people, or to make an example … ?

via MyFDL.

Torture is the ultimate crime against humanity.  The goal of torture is destroy the mind and spirit while leaving the body alive.  Nobody deserves to be tortured.  Not Adolf Eichmann, not Lavrenty Beria, not Carlos the Jackal.  Executed, yes.  Some crimes deserve the punishment of death, and we all have to die sometime.  But nobody deserves to be tortured.

Bradley Manning is accused of doing something that was illegal but morally defensible.  He had evidence of crimes and no way to make people accountable for those crimes except to make the evidence public.  I don’t condemn him, but I accept that if he is proved guilty and a Nuremburg defense is rejected, he has to suffer the legal consequences of his action – legal punishment, not illegal torture.

What about the Wikileaks video footage showing U.S. troops on helicopter gunships committing cold-blooded murder –  killing a Good Samaritan who stopped to help the wounded, and killing a passer-by rather than wait 60 seconds before blasting a building?  Will there ever be a trial for these crimes?  If not, we live not under the rule of law, but the rule of arbitrary power.

Solitary confinement as torture by the U.S. government did not begin, and is unlikely to end, with Bradley Manning.  Recall Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber (who didn’t bomb anything or try to make bombs, but explored the subject on the Internet with bad intentions).  He was kept in solitary confinement off and on for four years.  By the time he went to trial he was a human vegetable.  He was sentenced to 17 more years, but in his condition it wouldn’t have mattered whether he was convicted or released.

Before that, there was Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born scientist working for Los Alamos National Laboratories, who was accused in 1999 of giving nuclear weapons information to the Chinese government.  There was no solid evidence, but he was held in solitary confinement for nine months under conditions resembling Bradley Manning’s.  The solitary confinement was for 23 hours a day, and Lee was shackled whenever he was let out.  The purpose was to force a confession, but he always maintained his innocence.  When he came to trial, the federal judge apologized for his mistreatment.

Before that, there was Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1984 of passing confidential State Department reports to Israel.  He served seven years in solitary confinement. He charged that he was forced to sleep naked in a cold cell after sprayed with freezing water; I wish I could say that seems impossible.  Life imprisonment seems harsh, since Pollard did not intend harm to the United States, but I can see how reasonable people might differ.  But what purpose except pure malice is served by solitary confinement?

And there are all the low-profile people, with dark skins and foreign names, at Guantanamo Bay, the secret Bagram prison in Afghanistan and places we don’t know about.  No doubt many are actual enemies, but we know that some are guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. All are human beings with the same inherent dignity and worth as you and me.

We have rules for dealing with prisoners of war.  We have rules for dealing with accused criminals.  President Roosevelt didn’t order the torture of Nazi saboteurs.  President Eisenhower didn’t order the torture of the atom spies.  The United States was once seen as a champion of human rights.  Now it is seen as an enemy.

Click on Is long-term solitary confinement torture? for Atul Gawande’s article of March 30, 2009, in the New Yorker.  This article deals with prisoners serving ordinary criminal sentences, not the War on Terror.

Click on This Slow and Daily Tampering With the Mysteries of The Brain for information about the psychological effects of solitary confinement by Hilary Bok on the Obsidian Wings web log.  This article deals with solitary confinement and other psychological tortures of anti-Chinese Uighur nomads who never did anything against the United States, but wound up at Guantanamo Bay after being taken prisoner by bounty-hunters in Pakistan in early 2002.

Click on A Feature, Not a Bug for more by Hilary Bok on Obsidian Wings about the effects of solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation and other non-physical forms of torture.  It is the conclusion of a series of three posts whose point of departure is the Jose Padilla case.

Click on U.N. to investigate treatment of Bradley Manning and The inhumane conditions of Bradley Manning’s detention for more information and links by civil liberties blogger Glenn Greenwald.

Click on Wikileaks: the documentary for a video on Julian Assange and Wikileaks.  The Bradley Manning case is mentioned at about the 23rd minute. Leaked video footage from an Apache helicopter gunship showing the killing of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad begins at about the 25th minute. This link no longer works.

Ordinarily I don’t sign Internet appeals.  I don’t want to be a bigger target for fund-raisers, and I don’t want to add anything to my FBI file.  But I signed an appeal for Pfc. Manning to the commander of Quantico Brig.  Click on Sign Our Letter if you are willing to do the same.

[Update 1/25/11]  Blogger Jane Hamsher and David House, Bradley Manning’s primary visitor, were detained by military guards when they attempted to visit Manning and deliver the appeal, which had more than 42,000 signatures.  Click on Firedoglake Bradley Manning updates for details and updates.

[Update 3/5/11]  Click on Bradley Manning’s forced nudity to read about a new form of humiliation.  This kind of thing was once considered an outrage when done to prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

[Update 3/11/11]  Click on Bradley Manning on His Detention for Bradley Manning’s own account of his prison conditions (prepared with the help of his lawyer).  Scroll down to Page 7 of the PDF document to get to the important parts.  Convicted murderers are not treated like this.  But then they haven’t committed the crime of making top government officials look bad. This link no longer works.

[Update 3/24/11]  Click on Pvt Manning proves ‘slippery slope’ for commentary on how the Bradley Manning case illustrates the normalization of torture in the United States.

[Update 4/11/11]  Click on Private Manning’s Humiliation for an appeal against Bradley Manning’s degrading and humiliating treatment in the New York Review of Books.

[Update 4/26/11]  Click on Lessons from Manning’s transfer out of Quantico for Glenn Greenwald’s comment on Bradley Manning’s transfer from the Quantico Marine brig to the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

For multiple reasons, the treatment of Manning has been a profound stain on the Obama administration. It isn’t merely that the treatment is inherently inhumane, although that’s true. It isn’t merely that oppressive detention conditions are such a glaring betrayal of Obama’s repeated signature vow to end detainee abuse, though that’s also true. And it isn’t merely that Manning has never been convicted of anything, rendering this obvious punishment (masquerading as protective detention) offensive on multiple Constitutional and ethical levels (not to mention a violation of the UCMJ), though that, too, is true. What makes it most odious are the purposes that likely drove it: a desire to break Manning in order to extract incriminating statements to be used against WikiLeaks and, worst of all, a thuggishly threatening message to future would-be whistleblowers about the unconstrained punishment they’d face if they, too, exposed government deceit, wrongdoing and illegality.

Click on President Obama speaks on Manning and the rule of law for Glenn Greenwald’s comments on President Obama’s hypocrisy.

The impropriety of Obama’s public pre-trial declaration of Manning’s guilt (“He broke the law”) is both gross and manifest. How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt? … …

But even more fascinating is Obama’s invocation of America’s status as a “nation of laws” to justify why Manning must be punished. That would be a very moving homage to the sanctity of the rule of law — if not for the fact that the person invoking it is the same one who has repeatedly engaged in the most extraordinary efforts to shield Bush officials from judicial scrutiny, investigation, and prosecution of every kind for their war crimes and surveillance felonies. Indeed, the Orwellian platitude used by Obama to justify that immunity — Look Forward, Not Backward — is one of the greatest expressions of presidential lawlessness since Richard Nixon told David Frost that “it’s not illegal if the President does it.”

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2 Responses to “Bradley Manning’s “no touch” torture”

  1. Bill Elwell Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and powerful statement. I am sickened by the actions of our government. I expect better.


  2. Paypal vs. Bradley Manning « Phil Ebersole's Blog Says:

    […] on Bradley Manning’s “no touch” torture for background […]


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