America doesn't torture? Tell Bradley Manning

Bradley-manning-007

The US insists it won't torture Edward Snowden, but the experience of America's other high profile whistleblower says otherwise

In a bid to undercut Edward Snowden’s case for asylum and encourage his extradition to the US, US Attorney General Eric Holder has assured his Russian counterpart that Snowden would neither face the death penalty nor be tortured if returned to his home country. “Torture is unlawful in the United States,” he insisted. While Snowden no doubt breathes a sigh of relief at this generous and enticing offer, how genuine are these promises really?

It is true that under Obama the US has ended its policy of ‘enhanced interrogation’, done away with in early 2009. So Snowden wouldn’t be waterboarded or left hanging from his wrists naked and blindfolded for hours on end. However, judging from the treatment of Bradley Manning, who similarly drew the ire of the Obama administration for his unauthorised leaking of embarrassing information, Snowden still faces the possibility of torture, albeit in a less sensational form.

After leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents, Manning was held in prison for a whopping 1100 days, which even a military judge called excessive. This is nearly ten times the maximum standard amount of time a member of the military can be held without trial. Even worse, he was held in solitary confinement for eleven months during this period. For nine of those months, he was held at a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, in a windowless room for 23 hours a day, and prohibited from exercising, lying down, leaning on walls, owning any personal items, and even accessing television and newspapers. Deemed a suicide risk, he was forced to sleep naked without sheets or pillows and was woken two to three times a night by guards courteously checking up on him. This was despite his psychiatrist’s repeated protestations to staff that Manning was not a danger to himself or others, and thus didn’t qualify as a maximum-security prisoner. It is a reminder that the effectiveness of rules and laws is as much dependent on those abiding by them as anything else.

All of this led the UN special rapporteur on torture to stop just short of accusing the Obama administration of torturing Manning, arguing that it was “at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” which constituted a form of pre-trial punishment. Even State Department official P. J. Crowley called Manning’s treatment “ridiculous” and “stupid”, comments over which he later resigned.

Despite its routine use in the American penal system, solitary confinement is a brutal, dehumanising and crippling punishment that erodes an individual’s mental facilities and, eventually, sanity. Prisoners can experience a range of horrific side effects, from paranoia, anxiety, depression and hallucinations, to even the virtual shutting down of the mind, and those who get through the other side are rarely the same. Indeed, a friend of Manning’s testified to his gradual physical and mental deterioration over the course of his confinement. So while solitary confinement may not necessarily be legally classed as torture, a quick consideration of the facts leaves little doubt as to where on the spectrum it lies, particularly at extreme lengths.

It is not out of the question that Snowden could face similar treatment, albeit less extreme – the US will be keen to avoid the same furore that erupted over Manning’s mistreatment. Nonetheless, the slippery definition of just what constitutes torture leaves plenty of wiggle room for any vindictive policymakers. This should also give us pause when considering Holder’s assurances that “torture is unlawful in the United States.” Snowden has a right to be concerned.

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