On Thursday, Bradley Manning, one of the foremost prisoners of conscience in the world today, testified in open court -- the first time his voice has been heard since he was arrested, confined and subjected to psychological torture by the U.S. government.
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. This is AP's sole summary of the motion and its context:
Private Manning is trying to avoid trial in the WikiLeaks case. He argues that he was punished enough when he was locked up alone in a small cell for nearly nine months at the brig in Quantico and had to sleep naked for several nights.
It is clear what the unnamed writer wants the reader to take away from his passage. We are supposed to think: "That's it? That's all he's got? That they gave him a private room and made him sleep in the buff for a few nights? Is that supposed to be torture?"
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.
For the actual details of Manning's hearing -- which actually began a few days before his appearance -- you have to turn to foreign papers, such as the Guardian, whose coverage of Manning's situation has been copious. The Guardian provided two long stories (here and here), totalling 68 paragraphs, on Manning's testimony, both written by one the paper's leading reporters, Ed Pilkington, who was actually present in the courtroom. This was preceded by three long stories (here, here and here), also by Pilkington reporting on the scene, about previous testimony in the hearing, from the brig's commander and from the Marine psychiatrist overseeing Manning's condition.
As noted, the Times provided only the single wire story, 11 paragraphs long, during the entire week of testimony. Contrast this to the paper of record's treatment of those other prisoners of conscience, Pussy Riot, when they were put on trial by the Russian government this summer. In an eight-day period surrounding the trial, the Times ran no less that 14 stories on Pussy Riot's plight. Later this fall, when sentencing hearings were held for the group, the NYT ran 13 stories in a comparable time period.
I believe Pussy Riot's case warranted such coverage. But certainly Manning's case -- involving revelations of war crime, mass murder, brutality and his own unconscionable treatment by an American government that lectures other nations, including Russia, about impartial justice and human rights -- is of at least equal weight. But of course, it is easier -- not to mention more politic, and profitable -- to run 27 stories about the Kremlin's harsh and wildly disproportionate punishment for an act of civil disobedience while dribbling out a single reductive, dismissive story about entirely similar actions by the American government.
Again, recall the NYT/AP appraisal of Manning's motion: "He argues that he was punished enough when he was locked up alone in a small cell for nearly nine months" and had to "sleep naked for several nights." Here, from Pilkington, is what really happened. We begin with Manning's treatment in Kuwait, where he was first incarcerated -- a period entirely ignored by the NYT, although it took up much of his six-hour testimony.
"I didn't know what was going on, I didn't have formal charges or anything, my interactions were very limited with anybody else, so it was very draining."
[Manning] was put on a schedule whereby he would be woken up at 10 o'clock at night and given lights out at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. "My nights blended into my days and my days into nights," he told the court. … The guards stopped taking him out of his cell so that he became entirely cut off from human company. "Someone tried to explain to me why, but I was a mess, I was starting to fall apart." Military police began coming into his cell in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert two or three times a day doing what they called a "shakedown": searching the cell and tearing it apart in the process.
Eventually, Manning was strapped into an airplane and transported to the Marine Corps prison at Quantico, Virginia. There he was placed under the brig's most restrictive regime:
…no contact with other people, being kept in his cell for more than 23 hours a day, being checked every five minutes, sleeping on a suicide mattress with no bedding, having his prescription glasses taken away, lights kept on at night, having toilet paper removed.
… [The cell was] 6ft by 8ft. The cell contained a toilet that was in the line of vision of the observation booth, and he was not allowed toilet paper. When he needed it, he told the court, he would stand to attention by the front bars of the cell and shout out to the observation guards: "Lance Corporal Detainee Manning requests toilet paper!" …
For the first few weeks of his confinement in Quantico he was allowed only 20 minutes outside the cell, known as a "sunshine call". Even then whenever he left his cell – and this remained the case throughout his nine months at the marine brig – he was put into full restraint: his hands were handcuffed to a leather belt around his waist and his legs put in irons, which meant that he could not walk without a staff member holding him. …
He was under observation throughout the night, with a fluorescent light located right outside the cell blazing into his eyes. While asleep he would frequently cover his eyes with his suicide blanket, or turn on to his side away from the light, and on those occasions, sometimes three times a night, the guards would bang on his cell bars to wake him up so they could see his face. … He was forbidden from taking exercise in his cell, and … allowed out of the cell for at most one hour a day for the entire nine months at Quantico.
The official reason given for this treatment was Manning's mental health; he was supposedly a "suicide risk" who must be kept under special measures. This assessment by the brig commander was refuted by the brig's own psychiatrist, who testified during this week's hearing:
The psychiatrist who treated the WikiLeaks suspect, Bradley Manning, while he was in custody in the brig at Quantico has testified that his medical advice was regularly ignored by marine commanders who continued to impose harsh conditions on the soldier even though he posed no risk of suicide.
Captain William Hoctor told Manning's pre-trial hearing at Fort Meade that he grew frustrated and angry at the persistent refusal by marine officers to take on board his medical recommendations. The forensic psychiatrist said that he had never experienced such an unreceptive response from his military colleagues, not even when he treated terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo.
"I had been a senior medical officer for 24 years at the time, and I had never experienced anything like this. It was clear to me they had made up their mind on a certain course of action, and my recommendations had no impact," Hoctor said. ….
By 27 August 2010, Hoctor testified, he had spent enough time with Manning to recommend a further easing of conditions. From then on he advised in a regular weekly report that Manning should be … returned to the general brig population.
… The blanket denial of his expert opinion was unprecedented in his quarter century of practice, the psychiatrist said. "Even when I did tours in Guantanamo and cared for detainees there my recommendations on suicidal behaviour were followed."
Hoctor said he openly protested about the thwarting of his expert opinion at a meeting with the commander responsible for the brig, Colonel Robert Oltman, on 13 January 2011. … Hoctor said that the marine commanders should no longer pretend they were acting out of medical concern for the detainee. "It wasn't good for Manning. I really didn't like them using a psychiatric standard when I thought it clinically inappropriate," Hoctor said.
The court heard that Oltman replied: "You make your recommendations, and we'll do what we want to do."
This is the treatment that Barack Obama upheld in his one public comment on the case, in 2011. Obama said that Manning's treatment was "appropriate and meeting our basic standards." In a private fundraiser that year, Obama went further and declared Manning -- who is yet to stand trial -- guilty: "He broke the law." As Horton said, the government had made up its mind "on a certain course of action" -- trying to break Manning's mind and will in its larger goal of punishing WikiLeaks for its multiple revelations of Washington's crime and folly around the world. And from brig commander to commander-in-chief, it followed this course with admirable discipline.
As Pilkington notes, it was one of Manning's efforts to show how sane he was -- and his misplaced trust in a guard -- that led to the most infamous aspect of his imprisonment: the forced nudity that his captors found so titillating:
[Manning] related how he turned for help to one particular member of staff at the brig at Quantico marine base in Virginia where he was taken in July 2010. He assumed that Staff Sergeant Pataki was on his side, so opened up to him.
"I wanted to convey the fact that I'd been on the [restrictive regime] for a long time. I'm not doing anything to harm myself. I'm not throwing myself against walls, or jumping up or down, or putting my head in the toilet."
Manning told Pataki that "if I was a danger to myself I would act out more". He used his underwear and flip-flops as an example, insisting that "if I really wanted to hurt myself I could use things now: underwear, flip-flops, they could potentially be used as something to harm oneself"…. Manning felt good about his interaction with Pataki. "I felt like he was listening and understanding, and he smiled a little. I thought I'd actually started to get through to him."
That night guards arrived at his cell and ordered him to strip naked. He was left without any clothes overnight, and the following morning made to stand outside his cell and stand to attention at the brig count, still nude, as officers inspected him.
The humiliating ritual continued for several days, and right until the day he was transferred from Quantico on 20 April 2011 he had his underwear removed every night. …
All this is what the Times and AP have reduced to nothing more than being "locked up alone in a small cell" and having to "sleep naked for several nights." Nothing at all about the draconian restrictions; nothing at all about "shakedowns," wake-ups, 24-hour surveillance in bright light (even on the toilet), isolation, chains, deprivation, betrayal, interrogation, and forced nudity -- not just when he was sleeping (in bright light, under observation) but also out in corridors, while "officers inspected him."
All of this has been erased by the 'objective' reporting of the NYT and AP. None of this is to be known or considered by serious, respectable people. It didn't happen. It doesn't matter. Manning is a whiner who made America look bad, and in doing so, he helped a website that made America look bad. That's all that really matters. The details of his treatment -- not to mention the details of what he and WikiLeaks revealed -- are unimportant. You don't have to think about it. Just nod your head, shrug your shoulders, and go about your business.