Why Bradley Manning is fighting for his sanity

Coercion and humiliation seep through American culture, writes Alexander Cockburn

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:23 ON Thu 6 Jan 2011
Alexander Cockburn

For the past seven months, 22-year-old US Army Private Bradley Manning, first in an army prison in Kuwait, now in the brig in Quantico, Virginia, has been held 23 hours out of 24 in solitary confinement in his cell, under constant harassment. If his eyes close between 5am and 8pm he is jolted awake. In daylight hours he has to respond "yes" to guards every five minutes. For an hour a day he is taken to another cell where he walks figures of eight. If he stops he is taken back to his other cell.

Manning is accused of giving documents to Julian Assange at WikiLeaks. He has not been tried or convicted. Visitors report that Manning is going downhill mentally as well as physically. His lawyer's efforts to improve his condition have been rebuffed by the Army.

Accusations that his treatment amounts to torture have been indignantly denounced by prominent conservatives calling for him to be summarily executed. After the columnist Glenn Greenwald publicised Manning's treatment in mid-December, there was a moderate commotion. The UN's top monitor of torture is investigating his case.
Meanwhile Manning faces months, if not years, of the same. Will he end up like accused Chicagoan Jose Padilla, four years in total isolation and silence before his trial in 2007? Padilla was convicted as a terrorist and given 17 years, but only after his lawyer had been informed by prison staff that he had become docile and inactive to the point that he resembled "a piece of furniture".
Just over the edge of 2011, torture is now solidly installed in America's repressive arsenal. Not in the shadows where it used to lurk, but up front and central, vigorously applauded by prominent politicians. Coercion and humiliation seep through the culture, to the extent that before Christmas American travelers began to rebel at the  invasive pat-down searches, conducted by the TSA's airport security teams. They complained of being groped around bosoms and crotches.

Covertly, there was always plenty of torture, just as there were assassinations. After World War Two, the CIA's predecessor, OSS, imported Nazi experts in interrogation techniques. But this was the era of Cold War competition: Uncle Sam the Good against the dirty Russians and Chinese. The US government would go to desperate lengths to counter accusations that its agents in the CIA or USAID practised torture.

One famous case was that of Dan Mitrione, working for the US Agency for International Development, teaching refinements in torture techniques to Brazilian and Uruguayan interrogators.

Mitrione was ultimately kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerillas and executed, becoming the subject of Costa Gavras's movie State of Siege. The CIA mounted major cover-up operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having once told his students: "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect."

The American liberal conscience began to make its accommodation with torture in June 1977, which was the month the London Sunday Times published a major expose of the torture of Palestinians by the Israeli armed forces and the security agency, Shin Bet. Suddenly American supporters of Israel were arguing that certain techniques – sensory deprivation, prolonged stress positions while hooded, incarceration in ‘cells' the size of packing crates, etc – somehow weren't really torture, or were morally justifiable torture under the "ticking time bomb" theory.

Ahead lay the spectacle of Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, a supposed liberal defender of civil rights, recommending to Israel the notion of "torture warrants". The targets of the warrants would be "subjected to judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage". One form of torture recommended by the Harvard professor was "the sterilised needle being shoved under the fingernails".

With the Great War on Terror, launched after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack in 2001, torture made its march into the full light of day. Presiding over this journey was George Bush's secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld.

At Guantanamo Bay, it was Rumsfeld who gave verbal and subsequently written approval to torture suspects, using the notorious techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation and psychic degradation, with the Defence Secretary himself micro-managing the humiliations, some of them involving women's underwear.

In the case of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, there is again a trail of evidence showing it was Rumsfeld who personally decreed and monitored stress positions, individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

One US army officer, Janis Karpinski, has described finding in Abu Ghraib a piece of paper stuck on a pole outside a little office used by the interrogators. It was a memorandum signed by Rumsfeld, authorising techniques such as use of dogs, stress positions, starvation. On the paper, in Rumsfeld's handwriting, was the terse instruction, "Make sure this happens!!"

On the home front, torture as a drastic mode of social control flowered luxuriantly in the American prison system, whose population began to rocket in the 1970s to its present 2.5 million total. Informally, licensed male rape went hand in hand with increasingly sadistic solitary confinement and prolonged sensory deprivation – a condition in which some 25,000 prisoners are currently being driven mad.

As the Bush years drew to a close, liberals dared hope that the rule of law would return and with it respect for internationally agreed prohibitions on torture and treatment of combatants. Anticipation grew that the torturers, with the Bush high command at the apex, would face formal charges. Candidate Obama fanned that hope.

On January 21, 1977, on his first day in office, President Jimmy Carter fulfilled his campaign pledge, issuing a pardon to those who avoided serving in the Vietnam war by fleeing the US or not registering. If he'd waited a month or two, the honeymoon was already turning tepid and he might well have lost his nerve.

On his second full day in office, President Obama signed a series of executive orders to close the Guantanamo detention centre within a year, ban the harshest interrogation methods and review military war crimes trials. In his first State of the Union address a week later, Obama declared to the joint session of Congress: "I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture. We can make that commitment here tonight."

Within days of this false guarantee, Obama's Justice Department lawyers were telling US judges in explicit terms that the new administration would not be moving on from Bush's policies on the legal status of renditions and of supposed enemy combatants.

Lawyers from Obama's Department of Justice emphasised to judges that they, like the DoJ lawyers instructed by Bush's men, held that captives seized by the US government and conveyed to secret prisons to be tortured had no standing in US courts and that the Obama regime had no legal obligations to defend or even admit its actions in any US courtroom. "Enemy combatants" would not be afforded international legal protections, whether on the field of battle in Afghanistan or, if kidnapped by US personnel, anywhere in the world.

The torture system is flourishing, and the boundaries of the American empire are marked by overseas torture centres such as Bagram. There are still detainees in Guantamo – as of November last year, 174 of them. They are supposedly destined for a Supermax in Illinois. Manning fights for his sanity in Quantico.

Memo to David Cameron. Resist all extradition requests by the US government, on the grounds that those accused of terrorism cannot possibly expect anything but torture and a kangaroo trial. ·