Bradley Manning, an American soldier under suspicion of having leaked classified and sensitive information to WikiLeaks, has been in prison since May, 2010. His conditions of confinement are increasingly strange and defy comparison with standards applied to the incarceration even of violent and self-destructive service personnel—and by all accounts Manning is neither; he is a model prisoner. Most recently, his captors acknowledge in the face of media inquiries that Manning is subject to a strictly enforced nudity regimen.
In response to concerns about these reports, Department of Defense spokesmen have insisted that Manning is “being treated just like every other detainee in the brig.” They have responded to questions about the enforced nudity regime by stating that “the circumstances required that his clothing be removed as a precaution to ensure that he didn’t harm himself.” But Manning’s treatment bears no comparison with that of other prisoners at Quantico, and the idea that enforced nudity is appropriate as a special suicide regime for a prisoner classified by the camp psychiatrist as non-suicidal is equally suspect.
Manning’s special regime raises concerns that abusive techniques adopted by the Bush Administration for use on alleged terrorists are being applied to a U.S. citizen and soldier. Classified Defense Department documents furnish an alternative explanation for the use of enforced nudity: “In addition to degradation of the detainee, stripping can be used to demonstrate the omnipotence of the captor or to debilitate the detainee.” Other documents detail how enforced nudity and the isolation techniques being applied to Manning can be used to prepare the prisoner to be more submissive to interrogators in connection with questioning.
Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, speaking to the New York City Bar Association last week, acknowledged the concerns raised about Manning’s detention and stated that he had personally traveled to Quantico to conduct an investigation. However, Johnson was remarkably unforthcoming about what he discovered and what conclusions he drew from his visit. Hopefully Johnson is giving careful thought to the gravity of the deviation from accepted U.S. practices that the Manning case presents. Under established rules of international humanitarian law, the detention practices that a state adopts for its own soldiers are acceptable standards for use by a foreign power detaining that state’s soldiers in wartime. So by creating a “special regime” for Bradley Manning, the Department of Defense is also authorizing all the bizarre practices to which he is being subject to be applied to American soldiers, sailors, and airmen taken prisoner in future conflicts. This casual disregard for the rights of American service personnel could have terrible ramifications in the future. The recent dismissal and replacement of the Quantico brig commander may well reflect a critical attitude within the Pentagon towards the special regime for Manning, but more recent developments, including the regime of enforced nudity, offset that.
This weekend tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt stormed the headquarters of the Mubarak regime’s secret police in Alexandria and Cairo—flooding the Internet with pictures of the cells and torture devices used there. Leaders of the effort said their raid was undertaken to preserve evidence of the mistreatment of prisoners so that appropriate measures could be taken for accountability in the future. Around the world, the outcry against this regime of torture and terror is rising and fueling massive public uprisings–as we see today in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. This movement was spurred in part by WikiLeaks disclosures that helped lay bare the corruption and venality of these regimes. The brig commander at Quantico should consider carefully whether it is really wise to deal with a young whistleblower by using watered-down versions of the tools of tyrannical oppression with which regimes like Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi are so closely associated.