Monday, January 24, 2011

Wikileaks, Bradley Manning and the Art of Missing the Point

I continue to scrupulously avoid discussing Wikileaks in any real detail here, primarily because the issues raised by the organization and what it does are fantastically complicated. But beyond the mere complications presented by what Wikileaks does, I avoid the topic because I find that, overwhelmingly, both the supporters and critics of the organization are missing a larger fundamental issue. We exhaust thousands and thousands of column inches and untold gigabytes of data trying either to demonize or canonize Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, and the organization itself, to the point where we simply don’t care about the real underlying issue: Namely, how we go about classifying information in this country and whether that process has become dysfunctional.

When Wikileaks first began disclosing information that the U.S. government rather wished it hadn’t – and for many of us, our introduction to Wikileaks came via the horrific “Collateral Murder” video of U.S. troops firing on and killing twelve people, including two employees of Reuters, from a helicopter gunship in Iraq in 2007 – the ensuing discussion quickly devolved into a debate over Julian Assange’s status as a hero or a villain. What was lost in the conversation was whether the U.S. government had the right to withhold the information contained in the video some three years after the events depicted, long after the government had concluded its investigation into the matter. More importantly, in the months following the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, and with Wikileaks’ subsequent release of classified information regarding Afghanistan in July 2010 and its release of hundreds of thousands of U.S. Embassy cables in November 2010, most of our time and energy has been absorbed battling over Assange’s cult hero/villain status rather than engaging in a critically important conversation about how the government classifies information, who gets to make the determination that certain information should be classified, what standards are used in making that determination, and whether there is any meaningful review of those decisions or check on that decision-making authority.

And until we are willing to have that conversation, the question whether we should deify or crucify Julian Assange is of little interest to me.

And now, it seems to me, we’re doing the same thing when it comes to Pfc. Bradley Manning. Manning is the 22 year old soldier who was charged in July 2010 with (i) violating Army regulations prohibiting disclosure of classified information; and (ii) violating 18 U.S.C. § 793, which prohibits “delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source,” and 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(1) and (2), which prohibit “disclosing classified information concerning the national defense with reason to believe that the information could cause injury to the United States,” and “exceeding authorized computer access to obtain classified information.” Manning’s supporters, including Glenn Greenwald, point out that he has been held in jail for seven months (two in Kuwait and five in Quantico, Virginia) without having been tried on those charges, and that the conditions of his confinement have been harsh. Aside from the question whether the government has violated Manning’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial (and Manning’s lawyer claims it has), Greenwald and others claim that holding Manning in solitary confinement for an extended period means that he is being held “under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment and, by the standards of many nations, even torture.”

Now, I take issue with many things Glenn Greenwald says lately, but as to the question whether indefinite solitary confinement approaches the level of torture or cruel and unusual punishment (and it’s worth noting that those two are not the same thing), I believe he may well have a point. Atul Gawande wrote an extended piece for the New Yorker in March 2009 in which he reviewed everything from studies conducted on Rhesus monkeys to the experiences of hostages and POWs held in isolation for extended periods of time (including Terry Anderson and John McCain, among others), and it’s fairly clear that the scientific research supports Greenwald’s general proposition:

A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

That’s pretty damning evidence. It suggests that solitary confinement does indeed border on torture or cruel and unusual punishment, and it raises serious concerns about Manning’s treatment and the reasons why he’s being held in solitary.

But the problem is, once again our entire discussion has become about personalities – instead of Assange, in this instance it’s Manning – rather than the substantive underlying issue. There are online petitions and Facebook pages decrying Manning’s treatment in captivity, there’s nearly constant activity on Twitter describing Manning as a hero and a political prisoner … all the while ignoring this (again, from Gawande’s New Yorker article):

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons [i.e., prisons that are designed to hold prisoners in solitary confinement]. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all.

So, while it’s all well and good for liberal bloggers to be concerned about Bradley Manning’s solitary confinement, what good does it do to make a martyr of him if we’re going to ignore the more than 25,000 prisoners in U.S. prisons who are also being held in isolation, in most cases for far longer than Manning’s seven month stint? Which is not to minimize the issues involved in Manning’s case, but to say to Glenn Greenwald and others: Where have you been for the past couple of decades as the use of isolation and “supermax” prisons has literally exploded in the United States? And when are we going to have the real conversation that a case like Manning’s begs us to have – the conversation about whether the Constitution or simple human decency permits us to keep thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of men and women in solitary confinement, sometimes for years on end, in conditions that we know cause serious injury to the human mind, without giving it a second thought.

I’d sure like to have that conversation. In fact, that’s a conversation I’ve wanted to have since at least 1991, when, in the course of working on a prisoner civil rights case, I first became aware of the supermax prison concept. But as long as we use cases like Manning’s for no purpose other than, perhaps, to embarrass the current President, that’s a conversation I don’t think we’ll ever have.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Here's a blog which is, I think, part of the conversation you're referring to:

    And you probably know about the Witness Against Torture that took place in front of the White House for 10 days (ending Jan 22).

    I believe some of the criticism directed at President Obama is not motivated by bigotry, but by big-hearted activists ( of many faith and rational traditions)who believe he can do better.

  2. One can't mention Manning's treatment without simultaneously invoking all the other prisoners in solitary confinement? You realize how absolutely ridiculous you sound here, right?

    Next time you feel the need to defend this administration from critics on its left, run this little thought experiment: how many people have learned about the deleterious psychological effects of solitary confinement in the Manning case v. whatever it was that you did when you claimed to work on prisoner civil rights?

  3. Steve:

    Point: Missed.

    But while you’re here, try this little thought experiment: Try finding where in this post I “defended” the administration. Was it where I defended the release of the “Collateral Murder” video by pointing out that the government shouldn’t have been withholding that information three years after the events and well after the government concluded its own investigation? Was it where I pointed out that we need to have a serious conversation about how information is classified and how those decisions are reviewed? Was it where I pointed out that Manning’s attorney has asserted that the government is violating Manning’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial? Was it where I said that Greenwald was right to complain about Manning’s treatment? Was it where I said that solitary confinement probably is cruel and unusual punishment?

    Point being, you seem to have an agenda that has nothing to do with this post, but you want to use the post to attack Obama. Well, have at him. But again, attacking Obama will do nothing to address the conditions in state prisons all over the country where most of those 25,000+ prisoners are held in solitary. So, if that makes you feel any better about yourself to attack Obama over Manning, go nuts.

    And here’s a question, Steve-o. What have you done to address the plight of prisoners in solitary confinement? I’m anxious to know, because I’m sure like Glenn Greenwald you’ve done far more than I have.

  4. Nomi, thanks for that link and thanks for addressing the real point here. So many people have toiled away in anonymity working on prisoner civil rights issues (including the issues of solitary confinement) for so long, I can only hope that Manning’s case sheds a little light on the broader issues involved here. My fear is, so long as this is nothing more than a debate over Wikileaks/Assange/Manning vs. Obama, what’s going on in prisons every single day in this country will continue to be ignored.

    As far as criticism of Obama is concerned, I certainly don’t ascribe liberal criticism to racism, nor do I ascribe all, or even most, conservative criticism to racism. Sadly, there are racists everywhere – so it’s always possible that in individual instances, racism motivates some of that criticism, whether it’s on the left or on the right. On this blog I’ve consistently said that Obama is fair game, and I’ve invited open, fair-minded debate of this administration as well as the GOP. This issue is no different.

  5. By the way, Steve, I love the fact that you criticize me for only having actually represented prisoners in civil rights cases challenging the conditions of their confinement, as opposed to the mighty Glenn Greenwald who blogs about it. Irony is truly dead.

  6. Your take on this -- "the real underlying issue: Namely, how we go about classifying information in this country and whether that process has become dysfunctional" is almost entirely wrong.

    While you are completely entitled to "scrupulously avoid discussing Wikileaks in any real detail here" I do not think you are entitled to misrepresent or insinuate facts that are incorrect -- "the issues raised by the organization and what it does are fantastically complicated" or to shallowly and unsubstantiatedly try to insult -- "I take issue with many things Glenn Greenwald says lately" and "because I’m sure like Glenn Greenwald you’ve done far more than I have" and "as opposed to the mighty Glenn Greenwald who blogs about it" those that are not here.

    Your apparent inabilty to progress beyond the borders of Chicago blinds you to the facts that Wikileaks is a worldwide phenomena and is not limited to how the US government catagorizes its data.

    "We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact." -- That is how they say it --

    The point you are missing is that Mr. Manning and Wikileaks are concerned with "unethical behavior in their governments and institutions" and this is obviously not limited to data catagorization issues.

    Let's just add that your knowledge of Glenn Greenwald also is lacking.

    I appreciate you proclaiming to be an "unapologetic liberal" but I must condemn your completely wrongheaded take on Manning and Wikileaks. You, personally, seem to be lost in the personality charade that is being played out by the media. Wikileaks is a very simple concept and is in no way "fantastically complicated", as you say.

    These issues (Manning and Wikileaks) are about press freedoms and government accountability. Tangentially they also personally touch the torture/prison issues that you rightfully address as a "simple human decency" issue.

    Please don't refuse to address the importance of Wikileaks and miss the point of what it wants to be known as.

  7. Hi Dave -- we agree on the treatment of prisoners. Most people don't (yet!), so this is good. But what I don't get is why you feel the need to impugn the motives of those shining a light on Manning's treatment. You see everyone criticizing Manning's treatment as an illegitimate, underhanded attack on Obama; I don't. I pointed to the good such attention on Manning was doing as far as raising consciousness about solitary confinement as a form of torture, you dismissed such efforts as meaningless blog posts. (E.g. See interview with Atul Gawande and Staughton Lynd on DN --

    Not in the habit of closely reading Glenn Greenwald, but he points to a handful of instances where he's complained about the treatment of Jose Padilla, supported Webb's efforts at prison reform, etc., all prior to Manning. So the idea he's got no history here is wrong.

    Given this, hard to see you here other than a reflexive defender of the President, right or wrong. Ironic (ha!) given this is the mirror image of the charge you level at those complaining about Manning's treatment.

  8. Dave, I am an unabashed fan of all of your blogs, although when the Mets play the Cubs, then, of course, I will root for "the Metsies" (to quote Casey).

    I am a little sad that you no longer have Grace P. on your blogroll, but that won't stop me from including you and Jennifer on mine !

  9. Oops! Nom, that was a complete oversight on my part. I will correct that forthwith.