Suicide Probe Sheds Light on WikiLeaks Case

     (CN) - In justifying close restrictions on WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning pending trial, the military has said it found them necessary after a man facing court-martial committed suicide in the brig. Courthouse News offers an exclusive look at that case, based on internal Marine files.
     Col. Daniel Choike's cover letter for the June 2010 report, which Courthouse News acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, endorses the findings that late Capt. Michael Webb died by his own hand while incarcerated at the Marine Correctional Facility at Quantico. Webb, 46, had been awaiting court-martial proceedings on charges of defrauding the government.
     Shortly before his Jan. 31, 2010, death, Webb told apparent beneficiaries to his insurance policy in a letter that he hoped the proceeds would keep them from having to live "hand to mouth," military investigators found.
     Col. Choike, who served as the commander of the Quantico brig, determined that Webb died "in the line of duty and not due to his own misconduct."
     "My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Capt. Webb whose death has brought sorrow to us all," his cover letter concludes.
     Although the Washington Post and some websites reported briefly of Webb's passing, the story first received widespread attention during the unrelated court-martial of Pfc. Manning, the admitted source of the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.
     Manning spent nine months inside a maximum-security cell of Quantico brig starting in July 2010.
     Shortly before his transfer there, investigators labeled Manning as suicidal because he had made nooses in Kuwait.
     Quantico placed Manning in an 8-by-6 cell under prevention of injury watch and occasionally suicide risk status, where he faced intense monitoring and other conditions that a United Nations investigator called "cruel, inhuman and degrading."
     In January 2012, a military judge ruled that Manning's harsh confinement constituted "unlawful pre-trial punishment," but she concluded that it represented a good-faith effort from Quantico staff to prevent the WikiLeaks source from harming himself - given the brig's recent experience with Webb.
     Since then, Manning has been held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which determined he could be placed with the general population.
     Though the 25-page Webb investigation broadly blacks out names under the Privacy Act, the unredacted portion sheds light on that finding.
     Webb joined the Marine Corps in 2005 and rose to the rank of captain roughly two years later. A Quantico spokeswoman said he was a communications officer for the Casual Platoon, Service Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion.
     He received two awards around the time of this promotion: the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.
     Two years later, he came under suspicion of defrauding the government out of pay, allowances and benefits.
     According to the investigation, Webb was arrested after missing the date of his voluntary surrender and was found to have previously bought a plane ticket from his Jacksonville, Fla., home to Las Vegas, Nev.
     Deemed a flight risk, Webb's guards inspected his cell "once every 15 minutes during the awake hours and once every 30 minutes during the sleeping hours at irregular intervals," the investigation states.
     Guards told the investigator that they memorialized these check-ups on forms that they posted outside the cell, typically four times every hour.
     This monitoring intensified three days before his suicide, when Webb came under investigation for attempting to improperly mail out more than a dozen letters.
     The mailing officials at the brig allegedly confiscated but did not read the messages, which included apparent suicide notes to his family - and Quantico officials.
     The alleged mailing violations, however, prompted a search of Webb's cell that turned up dozens of contraband bags, pens, and other items.
     Although officials insisted that they removed these, Webb later managed to slip in a plastic bag, rubber band and washcloth into his cell, which he used to suffocate himself three days later.
     This prompted the investigator to ask "how could someone not have noticed the plastic bag on Capt. Webb's head while he was sleeping," according to the report.
     The unnamed Quantico official replied that the brig lets prisoners cover their faces with their blankets to shield their eyes because the lights were always on. In exchange, the brig makes detainees leave some skin exposed during inspections.
     "The correctional staff also indicated that this blanket obstructed the view of Captain Webb's head during the evening 'skin counts,'" the investigation states.
     Webb's suicide became apparent at reveille on Jan. 31, 2010, when a brig official, whose name is redacted, saw that the man's pale foot outside the blanket.
     Investigators said this official removed the blanket to find a garbage bag over Webb's head.
     An autopsy later found that there was "no evidence of struggle or assault."
     Webb's confiscated letters also confirm the suicide and lend support to the earlier secrecy of the case.
     In a letter to undisclosed family members in Florida, Webb wrote: "My option is cowardly but also will ensure that you may live well the rest of your lives," according to the investigation.
     Webb, who was single, was survived by his parents, a Quantico spokeswoman said.
     Another letter asked an "unnamed colonel in the Staff Judge Advocate office in Quantico" to "keep the details of his death private."
     A different message, whose recipient is not disclosed, contain instructions to use insurance money to sue the Marine Corps for "a breach of privacy" should it release personal information.
     At the time of the investigation, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service maintained custody of the letters as evidence, and the intended recipients allegedly never read the contents.
     The next topic of the investigation, looking into Webb's medical care, echoes the Manning case.
     The same day as the alleged mailing violation, Webb told the brig's psychologist, Capt. William Hocter, that he wished someone would "just shoot him."
     The psychologist assured Quantico officials that Webb did not plan to act on the remark, the investigation found.
     In December, multiple Quantico staffers testified that Hocter's diagnosis of Webb made them distrust his assessment of Manning, who repeatedly made comments about suicide that insisted were sarcastic.
     Hocter diagnosed Webb with bipolar disorder but never placed him on suicide risk, a status that would have further intensified his surveillance and made him sleep with tear-proof blankets and pillows.
     Rules set by the secretary of the Navy mandate that brig psychologists make suicide-risk determinations, and Hocter found that neither Webb nor Manning merited that status.
     Quantico staff followed Hocter's instructions for Webb but defied his orders regarding Manning.
     Nevertheless, Hocter's supervisor "stated in his review that Captain Webb was afforded good quality of care and there was no indication in his medical record of inadequate or inappropriate care," according to the investigation.
     Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, told Courthouse News in a phone interview that Webb's case seemed to stand apart.
     Still, it is not uncommon for military suicides to be deemed "in the line of duty," she added, noting that these determinations impact whether bereaved families can collect Servicemembers Group Life Insurance.
     The Army regulation governing "line of duty" assessments, which has been in place since 2008, instructs officers to consider whether a soldier who committed suicide had a mental health condition aggravated by service.
     Neiberger-Miller said that officers try to "look compassionately" at these cases with an eye toward the pervasive mental health concerns of the military.
     "If your buddy's in trouble, it's your job to help them out," she said. "You would not leave them on the battlefield. You should not leave them on the battlefield of the mind."
     Choike was not available to comment on his "line of duty" finding for Webb because he has retired from the Marine Corps, a Quantico spokeswoman said.
     The Army Gold Book, which the military considers the authority on suicide, said that soldiers are at significantly higher risk for suicide if they face legal action that impugn their reputations and careers, affect family relationships, and could result in incarceration.
     "Approximately 16% of all suicides involved subjects of on going criminal investigations or pending adjudications for criminal offenses," the guide states.
     The Department of Veterans Affairs reported recently that former members of the military "comprised approximately 22.2% of all suicides reported during the project period" of 2009 to 2012.
     "If this prevalence estimate is assumed to be constant across all U.S. states, an estimated 22 veterans will have died from suicide each day in the calendar year 2010," the report states.
     The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors encourages members of the armed services to get the help they need by calling the 24-7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.