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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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The System Broke Down,|Manning’s Attorney Says

FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - A Marine Corps prison in Quantico, Va., displayed a "complete breakdown in how the system should have worked," Pfc. Bradley Manning's attorney said Tuesday in closing arguments on alleged "unlawful pretrial punishment."

Hours later, the lead prosecutor countered, "There are absolute checks in the system. That's why we're here today."

The prosecutor, Maj. Ashden Fein, conceded that Manning should receive a day of credit for each of the seven days that he spent on suicide risk, which doctors found unnecessary.

That admission will hardly put a dent in the sentence Manning could face if convicted of 22 charges accusing him of sending hundreds of thousands of government files to WikiLeaks.

Manning's attorney, David Coombs, hopes to get charges dismissed or a sharper sentencing reduction, if he can prove unlawful pretrial punishment in the lengthy court-martial proceeding.

Quantico officials said they kept Manning under restrictive conditions for his own protection after two nooses were found in his prison cell in Kuwait, and because he wrote, "Always planning, never acting," on an intake form next to a box marked "Suicide."

"Granted, that wasn't the smartest thing to write down," Coombs conceded.

Still, he said, the incidents made the brig risk-averse to the point of absurdity.

"If the Quantico brig could have put him in a straitjacket and put him in a cushioned room and not had anyone complain, they would have done that," Coombs said.

The brig assigned Manning to maximum confinement and prevention of injury watch for the nine months he spent there.

These designations forced Manning to spend nearly all of his time in a 6-by-8-foot cell, monitored constantly by two guards.

For the first few months, he spent as little 20 minutes a day shackled at the hands and legs during "sunshine call."

"Yes, they were cautious," Fein said of the jailers. "Yes, their concern was to get him here, to get him here for trial. But that is their jobs."

Coombs claimed the brig was more interested in its public image than in Manning's health and safety.

About a week into Manning's confinement, a three-star general, then-Maj. George Flynn, attached a New York Times article about Manning to an email warning the brig's commanding officer, Col. Daniel Choike, about the "absolute necessity" of having the staff keep a "close watch."

"Once you hear that from an O9 [a three-star general], we're in the military, nobody's going to risk their career," Coombs said.

In a computer presentation, he displayed testimony from four Quantico officials worrying about their jobs, under the heading "Callous Indifference."

"The safest position for them was the status quo," Coombs said.

Only the brig psychologist, Capt. William Hocter, challenged Manning's treatment, in a January 2011 meeting with Col. Robert Oltman, the security battalion commander at Quantico.

Multiple brig officials testified that they did not trust Dr. Hocter because he gave a clean bill of health to another prisoner, who committed suicide in 2009.

Though an investigation of that prisoner's death cleared the brig staff and Hocter of missing any warning, several witnesses testified that they held the incident against him.

Fein acknowledged that the "communication in the brig was not ideal" between Hocter and the staff.

Other psychologists, who had better relations with the staff, backed up Hocter's observations and conclusions.

Ignoring medical advice, the brig stopped using "objective standards" to guide Manning's confinement, Coombs said.

Manning scored a 5 on an intake exam measuring a detainee's risk, far lower than the 12 typically needed to trigger maximum confinement.

Instead of these tests, Quantico staffers kept an eye on what they called "odd behaviors" from Manning, such as dancing in his cell and playing peek-a-boo in the mirror.

Coombs said this was mild for someone in long-term isolation who had to deal with boredom and lack of exercise.

"The fact that Pfc. Manning's spirit wasn't broken is actually kind of amazing," he said. "It is a testament to this young man's fortitude that he didn't break."

While Quantico kept an outward appearance of courtesy toward Manning, internal emails show the staff writing degrading comments about him.

Master Sgt. Craig Blenis, assigned as Manning's "counselor and advocate" at the brig, worked weekly to make sure that Manning stayed in restrictive custody.

As the senior member of Manning's review board, Blenis filled out his recommendation in advance to maintain the status quo.

"He is unprofessional," Coombs said of Blenis. "Worst of all, he is lying to Pfc. Manning."

When he took the stand for the first time in his court-martial proceedings, Manning testified that Blenis told him that diagnoses from the "docs" kept him on restricted status. Manning said he trusted Blenis because he considered him an "exceptional Marine."

Manning showered praise on the "very professional" brig staff throughout his testimony.

Fein said that is a sign that Manning was not mistreated.

Coombs urged the judge not to take his client's "very honest and straightforward " responses in that way.

"You can be very professional and still violate Article 13," Coombs said, referring to section on pre-trial punishment in military law. "They might even have had good intentions. The problem was their intentions were not required."

Fein told the judge that case law demands that she be "standing in the shoes" of the brig's commanding officer when she makes her decision.

Lind said she must transcribe the court's voluminous record from nearly three weeks of hearings before ruling.

One hour of taped testimony typically takes a day to transcribe and verify, a military spokesman said.

Manning will have one more chance to chip away at or dismiss his charges before trial, at another set of hearings investigating whether his pre-trial detention, which has lasted more than 900 days, violated his right to a speedy trial.

That hearing is set for early next year.

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