Private First Class Bradley Manning, the American soldier accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified and confidential military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, took the stand in a military court today to make his first public statements since his arrest in 2010.
Manning appeared confident and animated at a pre-trial hearing at Fort Meade in Maryland as he described the mental breakdowns and extreme depression he suffered during his first year in detention, from cells in Iraq and Kuwait to the Marine base at Quantico in Virginia. Within weeks of his arrest, Manning said, he became convinced he was going to die in custody.
"I was just a mess. I was really starting to fall apart," the 24-year-old former Army intelligence analyst said. Manning said he didn't remember an incident while in Kuwait where he bashed his head into a wall or another where he fashioned a noose out of a bed sheet as his civilian attorney, David Coombs, said he had, but Manning did say he felt he was "going to die... [in] an animal cage."
"I certainly contemplated [suicide]. There's no means, even if the noose... there'd be nothing I could do with it. Nothing to hang it on. It felt... pointless," he said. Manning had been on suicide watch since late June 2010, a month after his initial arrest in Baghdad.
Manning faces 22 charges related to his alleged use of his access to government computers to download and pass along a trove of confidential government documents and videos to WikiLeaks, including the 2010 mass release of 250,000 State Department cables detailing years of private U.S. diplomatic interactions with the governments and citizens the world over. The unprecedented document dump became known as "Cablegate."
Earlier this month Coombs wrote on his blog that Manning was willing to plead guilty to some lesser offenses. On Thursday the military judge in the case said eight lesser charges could be reviewed by Manning's defense attorneys for a potential plea deal, but a response likely won't be determined until December.
The most serious charge Manning now faces, aiding the enemy, could bring a penalty of life in prison should he be found guilty.
Manning's defense has argued for all charges to be dropped, citing a perceived breach of Manning's right to speedy trial and his "unlawful pretrial punishment" while in custody at the Marine brig in Quantico.
But in today's hearing, Manning described his time in custody prior to his stay at Quantico as an ordeal of its own.
He recounted an incident in Baghdad when he fainted from the heat in his cell. Later in Kuwait, Manning said he was initially given phone privileges he used to call an aunt and friend in the United States, but that privilege was taken away a short time later.
After his alarming breakdown in June 2010, Manning told a mental health specialist that he really "didn't want to die, but [he] just wanted to get out of the cage," saying he believed his life had "just sunk."
Manning was given medication that improved his mood to the point that the young soldier felt he "started to flatten out" and resigned himself to "riding out" whatever was coming his way.
After he had been held in Kuwait, Manning said he was "elated" when he learned he was being transferred back to America. He had feared being sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba or to a U.S. facility in Djibouti in Africa.
"I didn't think I was going to set foot on American soil for a long time," he said.
Once at Quantico Manning was still on suicide watch for two weeks. After that ended, he remained on maximum custody and prevention of injury status, which required strict vigilant monitoring of his behavior. He remained in this status for the duration of his nine-month stay at Quantico. Testimony presented at this week's pre-trial hearing showed that psychiatrists treating Manning repeatedly assessed that he was no longer a suicide risk and should not remain on prevention of injury status.
Manning said he spent 21 to 23 hours a day in his cell. He was allowed 20 minutes in the yard to soak up some sunshine and said he was only allowed to sit on his bed with crossed legs if his guards allowed it. His feet were in restraints and he could not rest against the walls.
He was once again placed on suicide watches in January and March, 2011 following comments to his brig guards that indicated to them that he might be suicidal. During the March incident Manning's underwear was taken away from him and he slept naked for a few nights and and required to stand naked at attention one morning.
During Thursday's testimony Manning demonstrated the dimensions of his cell that Coombs had marked on the courtroom carpet with masking tape. He also demonstrated the suicide prevention blanket and smock issued to him during those incidents.
Manning drew laughter from spectators in the courtroom when he described some of the behavior he exhibited in his cramped quarters to fight the boredom. He described the mirror in his cell as "the most entertaining thing in there.. I spent a lot of time there." When Coombs asked why, Manning replied "boredom, sheer out of my mind boredom."
That episode as well as others were documented by brig officials and base commanders as erratic behavior.
The trial against Manning is set to begin in late January, should the defense fail to succeed in getting the charges dropped.
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