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Locke Bowman

Locke Bowman

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Prisoner Abuse in Wikileaks Case Puts Our Standards on Trial

Posted: 04/19/11 10:23 AM ET

For a couple of news cycles last month, there was a public debate of sorts about the treatment of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of embarrassing the government by leaking State Department files to Wikileaks.

Manning, it will be remembered, is being held in a maximum security brig in Quantico, Virginia where he has been on "prevention of injury watch." According to news reports, his clothes have been removed every night and he has been forced to sleep in a smock. He is shackled when he is removed from his cell. His only exercise consists of the opportunity, one hour per day, to walk in circles in a room. He is forced to periodically assure his keepers that he is "okay," a procedure that makes it impossible for Manning ever to sleep for more than a few minutes at a stretch.

Manning's lawyer complained in a blog post that his client was being unjustifiably humiliated. Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesperson, famously let slip that Manning's treatment was "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid" -- an indiscretion that cost Crowley his job.

At a news conference on March 11, the president himself faced a question about Manning. Mr. Obama said he'd looked into the matter and received assurances from the Pentagon that Manning's treatment was "appropriate" and "meeting our basic standards," an answer that left some wondering what "basic standards" the president had in mind. Notably, though, Obama declined to answer whether he agreed or disagreed with Crowley's assessment.

The next week, the New York Times blasted the president for his indifference to the violations of Manning's rights. A group of academic luminaries drafted an open letter deploring the detention of Manning "under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral."

Then the flames of controversy died down.

Private Manning's abuse continues -- we must presume. The injustice of it is unabated. It's no less immoral and illegal this month than it was in March to deprive Manning of the opportunity to sleep and to strip him, literally and figuratively, of his human dignity. Due process and the rule of law bar still punishment without trial. And, in our system, even after trial, when punishment is justified, the punishment may not be "cruel and unusual," as Manning's ongoing mistreatment obviously is.

In truth, though, this was never a story about Private Manning. His case only caught the public's attention for a few days because Crowley, the former State Department employee, had the bad judgment to speak the truth about one instance of pointless cruelty. It got more interesting when the president had to respond to an inconvenient, discomforting question and demonstrated, as he has before, the unwillingness of his administration to take a principled stand against abuses of human rights.

The mistreatment of Private Manning is reprehensible. But what matters more is that the indignities and abuses he is enduring are merely commonplace.

My colleague Joe Margulies (a leading voice in opposition to the post-9/11 detention without trial of persons suspected of terrorist involvement) points out that Manning's treatment eerily mirrors the regimen that 9/11 detainees Jose Padilla, Yaser Hamdi and Ali al Marri were subjected to before any of them had been convicted of any offense. Few voices were raised in opposition.

In maximum security prisons and jails all over the United States detainees routinely endure mistreatment worse than the published accounts of what Manning is undergoing. For over a decade, seriously mentally ill prisoners at the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois have been stripped naked for periods of "suicide watch," during which they cower and whimper as security personnel make periodic observations of their "wellbeing." Prisoners at Tamms spend 23 hours per day in barren cells with concrete slabs for beds. They exercise alone in a concrete room. Their view of the outside world is a sliver of sky visible through a tiny window when they stand on their bunks. For year after year, their only human touch is from a guard who shackles their legs and arms whenever they leave their cells. Some lose their minds. No one cares.

The president's brush off of the complaints about Private Manning -- his treatment "meets our basic standards" -- is more an indictment of ourselves than of Mr. Obama. The president was right, of course. "Our standards" are being met in Manning's case. And that's the real problem.