- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama is feeling the heat over the treatment of WikiLeaks suspect Army Pfc. Bradley E. Manning. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama took unseemly advantage of the accusation that George W. Bush’s administration tortured terrorist detainees. Now even an O Force insider is strongly hinting that the administration’s conduct toward the individual thought to have leaked thousands of classified documents amounts to torture. 

Pfc. Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, last week released a letter in which Pfc. Manning purportedly described the “ordeal” he suffered in January during a three-day suicide watch at the brig where he is being held at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. “I was stripped of all clothing [at night] with the exception of my underwear,” he wrote. “My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness.” A short time later State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley was asked about why the United States was “torturing a prisoner in a military brig” during an on-the-record roundtable at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Crowley did not question the premise but said that the way Pfc. Manning was being treated was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” 

Administration officials were obviously not happy with this outburst. In a resignation statement, Mr. Crowley explained his comments “were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discrete actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership.” Of course he did much more damage to U.S. global standing and leadership with his casual, off-the-cuff remark. He added that the exercise of power “must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values,” which implies that torture is indeed taking place, but it is not necessarily so. 

A source familiar with the protocols of a prisoner suicide watch told The Washington Times that what the letter describes is standard operating procedure. “If [Pfc. Manning] is a threat to himself the military’s first responsibility is to keep him safe,” the source said. “Stripping him down is consistent with that” because the consequences of not taking action would be far worse. “Crowley may call this stupid, but imagine if [Pfc. Manning] killed himself. Imagine the conspiracy theories. It would be endless.” 

The military cannot openly address how Pfc. Manning is being treated because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) forbids disclosure of anything that might touch on Pfc.  
Manning’s mental state. The Defense Department has to respect the suspected leaker’s privacy right, and his lawyer is unlikely to convey the impression that Pfc. Manning is psychologically or emotionally unbalanced. 

The military has to rely on the commander in chief for top cover. At a press briefing Friday, Mr. Obama said that the Pentagon assured him that the procedures taken with respect to Manning “are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards” and that he “can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.” The president cannot go into detail because he must also abide by HIPAA restrictions. 

Mr. Obama’s statement was just vague enough to ensure that the issue would explode. The Baltimore Sun asks “Why is the U.S. torturing Private Manning?” Al Jazeera notes “the fine line between torture of enemy combatants and American citizens.” Andrew Sullivan calls Manning’s treatment “needless sadism.” Antiwar gadfly Daniel Ellsberg condemned the “shameful abuse of Bradley Manning” which “amounts to torture.” The Daily Kos calls it a war crime. The same media outlets that aided and abetted Mr. Obama in his undignified mission to paint his predecessor as a torturer now level the same charge at him. Perhaps Mr. Obama should call Mr. Bush and apologize.

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