Manning vs. the Marines

As far as villains go, Pfc. Bradley Manning is hardly quintessential. At 5 foot 2 inches tall, his slender frame and bespectacled image has invoked snickers, sarcasm and according to reporting over the last two years, a lifetime of bullying.

That bullying reached an apparent apex during his time in the Army. Not only was Manning small, but he was different. He fought back, at least verbally. And it turned out he’s gay. “He was a runt, so pick on him. He’s crazy, pick on him. He’s a faggot, pick on him. The guy took it from every side. He couldn’t please anyone,” one soldier told The Guardian in 2011. One can’t imagine worse conditions than being 21-year-old Manning in Army boot camp.

Except a 23-year-old Manning incarcerated by the Marines.

The Marines don’t exactly have the best reputation for dealing with misfits — we have all seen A Few Good Men, right? Joking aside, Manning’s defense lawyer this week turned the bright lights of public attention on the private’s detention at the Quantico brig after he was arrested in May 2010 for accessing and transferring some 700,000 secured and classified documents to WikiLeaks, until he was finally transferred to Fort Leavenworth nearly a year later.

Manning’s pre-trial hearings took place Nov. 27 through Dec. 2 at Fort Meade in Maryland and are expected to continue on Wednesday. For the first time, his lawyer David Coombs spoke publicly last night before a live audience. He called Manning’s confinement at Quantico, “a disgraceful moment in time … it was not only stupid and non-productive. It was criminal.”

The focus on Manning’s treatment is critical for a few reasons. As Kevin Gosztola, ace reporter for FireDogLake and author of The Dissenter blog told me over the weekend, the testimony this week from Manning, military psychiatrists and counselors and Manning’s former jailors had both “in court” and “out of court” impact, with both serving in the underdog’s favor.

First, in court, Coombs hopes that military Judge Col Denise Lind will find his client’s treatment at Quantico so egregious that she will dismiss the various charges, which include espionage and aiding the enemy, against him. While observers say that is not likely, the blunt testimony about Manning’s nine months in a 48-square-foot cell — where he was forced to stand naked at attention each morning and at night sleep with nothing but a “suicide vest” to cover him, all under solitary conditions that a United Nations official called “cruel and degrading” — she might go easy on his sentencing if convicted.

“You reach for the stars and hope you get some sky, or something like that,” noted Gosztola. “I would say it is really possible that you would have a motion where (the judge) finds in favor of the defense — in part,” resulting in a reduced sentence. The defense need only to prove the conditions had a cumulative harmful effect, not that the Marines were necessarily malicious in their intent.

Manning for the first time testified about his treatment in open court. He spoke about being in a metal “cage” that made him near suicidal when he was first arrested and confined in Kuwait, his experience on “suicide watch” at Quantico, and then his exhaustive attempts to get off “Prevention of Injury” (POI) status, which, despite a clean bill of mental health from at least two military psychiatrists, kept him segregated from the other prisoners and with nothing but a mirror in his cell to keep him company. A parade of military witnesses testified, too, that Manning was a “model prisoner,” but was nonetheless kept on strict POI status, partly because the Marines were worried about the political fallout if something happened to him.

Still no one wanted to take direct responsibility for isolating and humiliating Manning, which the psychiatrists said did more damage to his psyche than anything else. Those psychiatrists — Capt. Kevin Moore and Capt. William Hoctor — testified that brig officials repeatedly declined their requests that Manning be released from POI status.

This shows how rigidly the deck was stacked against Manning from the start, said Chase Madar, who authored The Passion of Bradley Manning earlier this year. “The defense establishing that Manning’s isolation confinement was against professional medical advice is strong for the case, as it shows, accurately, that Manning was the victim of treatment that was certainly sadistic and probably unlawful,” charged Madar, in an email exchange with

“There is no way that the court will see Manning’s unlawful treatment at Quantico as grounds for dismissing all charges. It’s a question of politics, the government has so much invested in this case, the judge would never dismiss the charges unless she wants to be transferred to the Aleutian Islands in time for Christmas,” Madar quipped. However, “it could mitigate the sentence.”

It could also have a strong affect on public opinion, which so far has been indifferent if not hostile towards Manning’s cause until now. This is of course the “out of court” — the public relations — benefit to having a week of testimony centered on what Manning called the psychological “out of my mind boredom” of solitary confinement, the “shark attack environment,” the horror of having to sleep naked and with bright fluorescent lights illuminating the cell, being awoken every five minutes while on suicide watch, not to mention walking to and from short breaks for sunlight in leg irons and having to stand naked in front of Marines twice your size who clearly think you’re the scum of the earth.

“I think the military came off looking terrible,” said Madar, noting the conflicting reports and testimony from officials who seemed more concerned about who was going to be “left holding the bag” and avoiding bad press than anything else.

“(The prosecution) has been arguing that throughout, the military has been ‘professional’ but really they look bumbling and sadistic,” he added.

The American mainstream has largely ignored Manning since he was arrested. Part of that is the public’s feeble attention span. But the corporate media is largely to blame for letting the story drop off the radar over the last year. If not for the Bradley Manning Support Network, and the alternative press covering the protests and the pre-trial’s sluggish developments, Manning would have been quickly forgotten. His eventual transfer to Fort Leavenworth last spring was largely credited to his determined and dedicated grassroots supporters around the world, who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense and kept his name in the press as much as possible.

This week’s focus on Manning’s treatment and mental condition brought more media than ever to Fort Meade, which has been holding pre-trial hearings since last December.

“(It) makes Manning look sympathetic (which is) very important, as public opinion will be — and already has been — important in getting humane treatment and eventually clemency for Manning,” Madar said with a hopeful note.

“Now that people have seen, two-and-a-half years later, that the leaks did not result in diplomatic Armageddon, the mainstream media is looking at this with a little more balance.”

Not everyone is convinced, pointing out that The New York Times hadn’t even bothered to send a correspondent. Meanwhile, after all its in-depth coverage of Manning’s initial arrest, The Washington Post left the story off the front page over the last week, even the day Manning testified himself — the first anyone has heard him speak publicly, ever.

Here’s Chris Floyd on Saturday:

An event of some newsworthiness, you might think. Manning has admitted leaking documents that detailed American war crimes in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has been held incommunicado for more than 900 days by the Obama administration. Reports of his treatment at the hands of his captors have sparked outrage, protests and concern around the world. He was now going to speak openly in a pre-trial hearing on a motion to dismiss his case because of that treatment. Surely such a moment of high courtroom drama would draw heavy media coverage, if only for its sensationalistic aspects.

But if you relied on the nation’s pre-eminent journal of news reportage, the New York Times, you could have easily missed notice of the event altogether, much less learned any details of what transpired in the courtroom. The Times sent no reporter to the hearing, but contented itself with a brief bit of wire copy from AP, tucked away on Page 3, to note the occasion.

That story — itself considered of such little importance by AP that it didn’t even by-line the piece (perhaps the agency didn’t send a reporter either, but simply picked up snippets from other sources) — reduced the entire motion, and the long, intricate, systematic government attack on Manning’s psyche, to a matter of petty petulance on Manning’s part, a whiner’s attempt to weasel out of what’s coming to him.

While most thinking people look beyond the NYT for their news, Floyd notes it would be a mistake to disregard the paper’s influence entirely.

As we noted here the other day, the New York Times is the pacesetter for the American media; it plays a large part in setting the parameters of acceptable discourse and honing the proper attitude that serious, respectable people should take toward current events. The paper’s treatment of Manning’s court appearance is exemplary in this regard. The case is worth noting, yes, but only briefly, in passing; Manning himself is a rather pathetic figure whose treatment by the government, while perhaps not ideal in all respects, has not been especially harsh or onerous. This is what serious, respectable people are meant to believe about the case; and millions do.

This of course brings us back to 2010 when Manning was first arrested. Back then, major newspapers spent a good deal of time and resources detailing Manning’s neuroses, the bullying, his “gender identity crisis,” his emotional outbursts against ranking officers. Buried in that was of course, the reason why he allegedly leaked all those documents, many of which uncovered some very unseemly things about our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, like covering up the real civilian death toll and allowing the torture of Iraqi dissidents. For Manning, who now risks a lifetime in prison, exposing these things was the right thing to do. For many Americans, this is a concept so alien that it apparently warrants derision.

It was all captured in the online chat logs with hacker-turned-informant Adrian Lamo, with whom Manning had confided, quite mistakenly. Lamo led the military authorities to Manning’s door shortly after he told him why he supposedly gave the trove of secret information to Julian Assange at WikiLeaks (Assange is now part of a broader U.S. federal investigation of WikiLeaks and now living under Ecuadoran asylum in order to escape extradition to Sweden on unrelated sex assault charges):

(02:28:10 am) bradass87 (Manning): I want people to see the truth …regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public…

(1:11:54 pm) bradass87: and …its important that it gets out …i feel, for some bizarre reason

(1:12:02 pm) bradass87: it might actually change something

“For his act of conscience, Manning has become the subject of harsh incarceration himself, as some U.S. pundits and even members of Congress have called for his execution as a traitor,” noted activist Ray McGovern, who once served in the Washington intelligence community and now works to get people like Manning a fair shake. “At minimum, however, he has been made an example to anyone else tempted to tell hard truths.”

Talking to McGovern shortly after Wednesday’s court proceedings, which he attended, it was clear that the media, nor even the government’s lawyers, are the greatest challenge to Manning’s future today. President Barack Obama, as well as many in the Washington national security and diplomatic establishment had already pronounced Manning as guilty. This is called “command influence” and it is going to be a formidable obstacle to the defense’s attempts to sway the judge for leniency.

“The president himself said (Manning) broke the law,” McGovern told “I consider that to be the killer.”

However, “(Manning) had his day in court, literally and figuratively,” added McGovern, who called it an “orderly, fair” procedure, in which the judge allowed the defense to ask one officer questions for a straight eight hours and she herself “had some real penetrating questions, and they were the right ones.”

“I ended up with an upbeat feeling” that the right messages came across, said McGovern.

That might be the best Manning can ask for, for now. Yes, as far as villains go, Manning is atypical, but the government has tried to paint him as the worst. Meanwhile, the defense wants us to know that among Manning’s bullies, the Marines are the worst. The court of American public opinion is fickle — it doesn’t much like rule-breakers (at least the non-conformist kind), but bullies aren’t high on the list either. It’s up to Manning’s supporters to make sure that this court, at the very least, is eventually persuaded.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.