In disturbing reports from the US, it appears that Private First Class Bradley Manning, the former intelligence analyst accused of leaking the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, the US diplomatic cables and the “Collateral Damage” video, which have dominated headlines globally since WikiLeaks began making them available in April this year, is being held in conditions that bear a marked and chilling resemblance to the conditions in which a handful of US citizens and residents were held as “enemy combatants” under the Bush administration.
Manning, whose 23rd birthday was on Friday, has been held in solitary confinement for seven months since he was seized in Kuwait, where he was held for the first two months prior to his transfer to a military prison in Quantico, Virginia. According to David House, a computer researcher from Boston who visits him twice a month, his “prolonged confinement in a solitary holding cell … is unquestionably taking its toll on his intellect.” House explained how Manning “was no longer the characteristically brilliant man he had been, despite efforts to keep him intellectually engaged.”
However, what was particularly revealing about House’s comments was his denial of the authorities’ statement that Manning “was being kept in solitary for his own good,” based on a claim that he was initially held on suicide watch. As he explained, “I initially believed that his time in solitary confinement was a decision made in the interests of his safety. As time passed and his suicide watch was lifted, to no effect, it became clear that his time in solitary — and his lack of a pillow, sheets, the freedom to exercise, or the ability to view televised current events — were enacted as a means of punishment rather than a means of safety.”
The key elements here are the elements of profound isolation and suffering identified by House — not just the solitary confinement, with no other human being for company, but also the refusal to allow Manning to have a pillow, sheets, or any access to the outside world through the reporting of current affairs.
It is these factors that mark out his conditions of detention as sharing some key elements with the conditions endured by the three “enemy combatants” held on the US mainland under the Bush administration — the US citizens Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, and the US legal resident Ali al-Marri.
Hamdi, initally held at Guantanamo, was kept in isolation from May 2002 until he won a case before the Supreme Court on June 28, 2004, leading to his release in Saudi Arabia three months later. Padilla, held from May 2002 until he was transferred into federal custody on January 3, 2006 (and subsequently tried and convicted in August 2007, and given a sentence of 17 years and four months in January 2008 for conspiring to kill people in an overseas jihad and to fund and support overseas terrorism), was held for 21 months in total isolation. Al-Marri, who was initially arrested in December 2001, was held alone for five years and eight months (including 16 months in total solitary confinement) before President Obama moved him into the federal court system in February 2009, leading to a trial and an eight-year sentence after a plea deal eight months later.
As I explained in an article two years ago:
As was recently revealed through the disclosure of military documents following a Freedom of Information request (PDF), al-Marri, along with two American citizens also held as “enemy combatants” — Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla — was subjected to the same “Standard Operating Procedure” that was applied to prisoners at Guantánamo during its most brutal phase, from mid-2002 to mid-2004. This involved the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including prolonged isolation, painful stress positions, exposure to extreme temperature, sleep deprivation, extreme sensory deprivation, and threats of violence and death.
Although the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo was disturbingly harsh, it can be argued — with some confidence, I believe — that the treatment of al-Marri, Hamdi and Padilla was worse than that endured by the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners, as all three suffered in total isolation … Held alone in cellblocks that were otherwise unoccupied, al-Marri, Hamdi and Padilla had to survive without even the small comforts available to most of the Guantánamo prisoners, who, when not held in isolation as a punishment or as a prelude to interrogation, could at least communicate with the prisoners in the cells adjacent to them, and could take advantage of what lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has called the “incredible prisoner bush telegraph,” through which information is conveyed around the prison.
In the case of Hamdi (who was picked up in Afghanistan in November 2001 and initially held in Guantánamo until it was discovered that, although he had lived in Saudi Arabia since he was a child, he was born in Baton Rouge and was an American citizen), the effects of this near-total isolation were already apparent in June 2002, just a month after his transfer from Guantánamo. As one of the officers responsible for him explained in an email to his superiors, “with no potential end in sight and no encouraging news and isolated from his countrymen, I can understand how he feels … I will continue to do what I can to help this individual maintain his sanity, but in my opinion we’re working with borrowed time.”
In the case of Jose Padilla, who was held in strict solitary confinement for 21 months, the effects of his isolation were so intense that it has been reported that he literally lost his mind (his warders described him as “so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for ‘a piece of furniture’”) [Further details of Padilla's harrowing mental collapse can be found here].
Al-Marri’s experience was similar. As his lawyers explained in May , in court documents protesting his treatment (PDF), for the 16 months that he was held incommunicado, “He was denied any contact with the world outside, including his family, his lawyers, and the Red Cross. All requests to see, speak to, or communicate with Mr. al-Marri were ignored or refused. Mr. al-Marri’s only regular human contact during that period was with government officials during interrogation sessions, or with guards when they delivered trays of food through a slot in his cell door, escorted him to the shower, or took him to a concrete cage for ‘recreation.’ The guards had duct tape over their name badges and did not speak to Mr. al-Marri except to give him orders.”
There is, at present, no suggestion that Bradley Manning has been subjected to a wide range of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but prolonged isolation is confirmed, and depriving him of a pillow, sheets, or any access to the outside world through the reporting of current affairs are all elements of discomfort and further isolation that were key to the program of belittling and punishing “enemy combatants,” and, crucially, “softening them up” or “breaking” them for interrogation. It is, sadly, all too easy to imagine that other techniques designed to disorientate Manning and to further erode his will — involving elements of sleep deprivation, threats and sensory deprivation — could also be applied, or are, perhaps, already being apllied, especially if, as has been suggested by the Independent, the authorities are hoping to cut a plea deal with him, reducing a 52-year sentence in exchange for a confession that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, whom the US is seeking to extradite to the US, was not just a passive recipient of the information leaked by Manning, but was instead a conspirator.
Assange, who was released on bail in the UK on Thursday, after being imprisoned for nine days following an extradition request from Sweden relating to rape charges, denies knowing Manning at all. After his release from Wandsworth prison, he said, “I had never heard of the name Bradley Manning before it was published in the press. WikiLeaks technology [was] designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never know the identities or names of people submitting us material.”
In contrast, however, as the Independent explained, “Adrian Lamo, a former hacker who had been in contact with Pte. Manning and eventually turned him in to the government, has told the FBI that Mr. Assange had given the young soldier an encrypted internet conferencing service as he was downloading government files and a dedicated server for uploading them to WikiLeaks. Mr. Lamo claims that Pte. Manning had ‘bragged’ about this to him. In one email, now in the possession of the Justice Department, the soldier allegedly wrote: ‘I can’t believe what I’m confessing to you … I’m a source, not quite a volunteer, I mean, I’m a high-profile source … and I’ve developed a relationship with Assange.’”
As this story continues to develop, further clues about the kinds of pressure exerted on Manning can be gleaned from David House’s description of the lengths to which the authorities are going to harass those who know Manning. House told the Guardian that “many people were reluctant to talk about Manning’s condition because of government harassment, including surveillance, warrantless computer seizures, and even bribes,” stating, “This has had such an intimidating effect that many are afraid to speak out on his behalf”
The Guardian added, “Some friends report being followed extensively. Another computer expert said the army offered him cash to — in his words — ‘infiltrate’ the WikiLeaks website.” He said, “I turned them down. I don’t want anything to do with this cloak and dagger stuff.”
House also explained how, on November 3, he “found customs agents waiting for him when he and his girlfriend returned to the US after a short holiday in Mexico. His bags were searched and two men identifying themselves as Homeland Security officials said they were being detained for questioning and would miss their connecting flight. The men seized all his electronic items and he was told to hand over all passwords and encryption keys — which he refused. The items have yet to be returned.”
In conclusion, then, anyone concerned with justice needs to keep a close eye on Bradley Manning’s case, not just because any pressure exerted on Manning to implicate Julian Assange in his decision to leak classified US documents would have a disastrous impact on freedom of speech, and would, possibly, pave the way for an unprecedented assault on the freedom of the Internet, where alternative voices to the mainstream are needed more than ever, but also because of the suspicion that, in exerting pressure on Manning, the Obama administration has crossed a line and is drawing inspiration from the discredited — if not thoroughly repudiated — practices of the Bush administration.
Note: Anyone interested in supporting Bradley Manning — and contributing to his legal fund — should visit the website of the Bradley Manning Support Network.
Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America’s illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.