Soldier’s case dominated by testimony on suicide

FORT MEADE, Md. — In a military hearing for Pfc. Bradley Manning that has unfolded over the past two weeks, the reams of classified documents he is accused of leaking have barely come up. Instead, the proceedings have focused on a bedsheet noose, confiscated clothes and whether Manning seriously contemplated killing himself with flip-flops or the elastic waistband of his underwear.

The 24-year-old former Army intelligence analyst is trying to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing that the military held him in unduly harsh conditions for nine months to punish him after his 2010 arrest on suspicion of turning over military and diplomatic secrets to the website WikiLeaks.

The Pentagon has said that Manning was a suicide risk and that it was only trying to keep him from hurting himself and others when it confined him to a windowless, 6-by-8-foot cell in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Va., for 23 hours a day.

Legal experts say the chances of the case being thrown out are slim, but Manning could win extra credit for the time he has served if he is ultimately convicted at a court-martial and sentenced to prison. He faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy, which carries a maximum of life behind bars.

The pretrial hearing drew to a close Tuesday. The military judge gave no indication of when she might rule.

Defense attorney David Coombs said during closing arguments that the military was worried more about its image than about Manning.

“They were more concerned with how it would look if something happened to Pfc. Manning … than they were about whether Pfc. Manning was actually at risk,” Coombs said. “Their approach was, ‘Let’s not have anything happen on our watch. Let’s not let anything happen that’s going to make us look bad.”’

The highlight of the 10-day hearing was Manning’s testimony, his first public comments since his May 2010 arrest. Manning said he got so used to leg irons and being locked up for most of the day that when he was finally transferred to medium-security confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in April 2011, he felt uneasy moving freely around the cellblock.

During his nine months at the Quantico brig, commanders maintained the extra restrictions despite repeated recommendations by brig psychiatrists that they be eased. Manning was issued scratchy, suicide-prevention bedding, and sometimes all his clothing, including his underwear, was removed from his cell, along with his glasses and reading material.

“All logic by anyone who could affect change for Pfc. Manning was checked at the door,” Coombs said.

At one point during his testimony, Manning donned a dark-green, suicide-prevention smock resembling an oversized tank top made of stiff, thick fabric. He said it was similar to one he was issued in March 2011 after he told a guard — out of frustration, he said — that if he really wanted to hurt himself, he could have done so with his underwear waistband or flip-flops.

“I was venting a little bit,” Manning testified Nov. 29. He said he told the guard: “If I really wanted to hurt myself, wouldn’t I just use the things that are here now — the underwear, the flip-flops? They could potentially be used as something to harm oneself or others. Where does it stop? Does it stop with removing walls? Does it stop with padding? Does it stop with a straitjacket?”

Before receiving the smock, he stood naked at attention one morning for a prisoner head count. Manning said a guard ordered, or implied, that he should put down a blanket he was using to cover himself.

“I had no socks, no underwear. I had no articles of clothing. I had no glasses,” he said.

Manning’s defense team also produced documents in which the military appeared to be mocking Manning. A former brig supervisor denied making light of Manning’s homosexuality when he referred to the soldier’s underwear as “panties” in a staff memo.

Also, Quantico’s chief legal officer at the time, Lt. Col. Christopher Greer, made light of the underwear episode in an email with a Dr. Seuss parody: “I can wear them in a box. I can wear them with a fox. I can wear them in the day. I can wear them so I say. But I can’t wear them at night. My comments gave the staff a fright.”

During cross-examination of Manning, a military prosecutor held up a knotted bedsheet and got Manning to acknowledge that he fashioned a noose and contemplated suicide in Kuwait shortly after his arrest. Prosecutors also noted that Manning said on a form upon his arrival at Quantico that he was “always planning and never acting” on suicidal impulses.

Prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein said during closing arguments that the defense had offered no evidence that anyone at the brig intended to punish Manning. He said the brig staff employed restrictions tailored to Manning’s situation and behavior.

“When brig officials saw someone who was not like others … they tried to figure it out to the best of their abilities on a daily basis,” he said.

However, the government conceded that Manning was improperly held on suicide watch for seven days and should get seven days’ credit at sentencing.

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale and has been closely following the proceedings, said Manning might have done enough to persuade the judge to consider a sentence adjustment later on.

“I don’t see this as a basis for tossing the entire case,” said Fidell, a former Coast Guard judge advocate. “This may prove to be essentially a sideshow.”

Manning, a native of Crescent, Okla., is accused of leaking classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010. He is also charged with leaking a 2007 video of a U.S. helicopter crew mistakenly gunning down 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer.

Manning supporters consider him a whistleblowing hero whose actions exposed war crimes and helped trigger the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings in late 2010. In an online chat with a confidant-turned-government informant, Manning allegedly said he leaked the material because “I want people to see the truth.”

He has offered to plead guilty to reduced charges. But the military judge hasn’t ruled on the offer, and prosecutors have not said where they stand.

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Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.

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