FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) — A retired Marine Corps colonel denied Tuesday that a three-star general directed the harsh pretrial confinement of an Army private charged with passing reams of classified documents to the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks.
Daniel Choike was installation commander of the Quantico, Va., Marine Corps base during Pfc. Bradley Manning’s nine months of confinement there from July 2010 to April 2011. He testified at a pretrial hearing for Manning.
Manning is seeking dismissal of the case, alleging he was illegally punished by conditions that included being locked up alone at least 23 hours a day, being forced to sleep naked for several nights and being forced to stand naked at attention one morning.
His lawyers contend the conditions were directed by Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who was commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico at the time. Confronted by civilian defense attorney David Coombs with a series of emails that included Flynn and Choike, Choike testified he kept Flynn informed about the situation but that Flynn never influenced the decision to keep Manning on maximum security and prevention-of-injury status.
“Gen Flynn was not in the decision-making chain,” Choike said. “Gen. Flynn never once influenced anybody.”
Instead, Manning’s custody status was determined by the brig commander, he said. That position was held during Manning’s confinement by Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Averhart and then by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Denise Barnes.
Choike defended the brig commanders’ decision to keep Manning classified as maximum-custody detainee who posed a threat of injury to himself or others. The classification was contrary to the recommendation of mental-health workers who examined him.
Court recessed for the evening after more than five hours of testimony from Choike.
Choike acknowledged that Flynn had expressed interest in Manning’s confinement due to the nature of the charges and international media attention to the case. Choike said Manning was under suicide watch when the soldier arrived at Quantico from Kuwait, and Flynn wanted assurance that everything was being done to keep him safe. Another prisoner had committed suicide in the brig the previous December.
Choike said Manning’s custody status was determined in part by his odd behavior, including licking the bars of his cell, “erratic dancing” and lifting invisible weights. Coombs suggested that the bar-licking occurred during sleepwalking and that the other behaviors were merely exercise.
Choike said Manning’s jailers took away his underwear at night starting March 2, 2011, after he made what they regarded as a suicidal comment: “I have everything I need right here to be able to harm myself. The waistband of my underwear can do this.” Coombs suggested the comment stemmed from Manning’s frustration at being kept on injury-prevention status.
A day later, Manning was forced to stand naked at attention for morning inspection by a guard who told him he wasn’t allowed to cover himself with his blanket, Coombs said. Choike denied any knowledge of such an order. If the guard gave it, “That would be wrong,” Choike said.
“And why would that be wrong?” Coombs asked.
“It serves no purpose,” Choike said.
Before the hearing Tuesday, about two-dozen Manning backers held up signs of support outside the post. Then they attended the proceeding, many wearing black T-shirts with the word “Truth” in white lettering.
The U.S. government claims the disclosures attributed to Manning endangered lives and security. Manning supporters say the leaks exposed war crimes and triggered pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.
Judges can dismiss all charges if pretrial punishment is particularly egregious, but that rarely happens. The usual remedy is credit at sentencing for time served, said Lisa M. Windsor, a retired Army colonel and former Army judge advocate now in private practice in Washington.
In a 1956 case, U.S. v. Bayhand, a military appeals court ordered all charges dismissed against a soldier who had been forced during his pretrial confinement to do hard labor alongside a sentenced prisoner. The court ruled that the soldier had been given an illegal order.
Since then, there have been few, if any, cases in which pretrial punishment has led to dismissal of all charges. Lt. Col. Eric Carpenter, chairman of the criminal law department at the judge advocates school in Charlottesville, Va., said he couldn’t find one but he couldn’t say for sure that the remedy hasn’t been granted.
Manning has also offered to take responsibility for the leak by pleading guilty to reduced charges. The military judge hasn’t yet ruled on the offer and prosecutors have not said whether they would still pursue the charges against him.
The military contends Manning’s treatment at Quantico was proper, given his classification as a maximum-security detainee who posed a risk of injury to himself or others. He was later moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he was re-evaluated and given a medium-security classification.
A United Nations investigator called the conditions of Manning’s time at Quantico cruel, inhuman and degrading, but stopped short of calling it torture.
The 24-year-old native of Crescent, Okla., faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of aiding the enemy, the most serious of the 22 charges.
He is accused of sending hundreds of thousands of classified Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks while he was working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.
The materials Manning is suspected of leaking include sensitive reports on foreign governments and leaders, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and a 2007 video clip of a U.S. helicopter crew gunning down 11 men later found to have included a Reuters news photographer and his driver. It was the video that garnered the most worldwide attention from the leak. As for the video clip, the Pentagon concluded the troops acted appropriately, having mistaken the camera equipment for weapons.
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