Phone home, Mr. President.
Laurence Tribe, the legendary constitutional law professor, is really ticked off with you. That should be some kind of wake up call. Because he was your constitutional law professor. One of the key backers of your 2008 presidential campaign. Even joined your justice department as a legal adviser in 2010—briefly.
This week Tribe and over 250 American legal scholars have a letter in the New York Review of Books. It’s about Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to WikiLeaks. It calls Manning's reported treatment a violation of the US constitution. In particular, the eighth amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment; and the fifth, which prevents punishment without trial.
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Manning’s had no trial yet; he’s been found guilty of nothing. Still, he’s been in military prison for nearly 10 months now in maximum security—23 hour a day solitary confinement, with the 24th reserved for pacing a different cell—again, alone. Under the ruse that Manning’s suicidal, which he disputes, his jailors ask if he’s okay every five minutes, all day long, and he has to respond. At night, too, if he pulls the blankets over his head, or turns his back to the cell door.
Just this past week his jailors decided that at night he has to go naked except for a smock. Underwear as suicide risk. In fact, we know that it’s extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, verbal harassment, and forced nudity that do eventually break people down or drive them insane.
Call this toxic cocktail Guantánamo Bay with a splash of Abu Ghraib.
You, Mr. President, taught constitutional law yourself, a fact you often mentioned as a candidate. You promised us strong moral leadership. Said you’d roll back the post-9/11 unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration.
And now, here we are. As commander in chief, you’re ultimately responsible for Manning’s treatment in jail. But you’ve insisted it’s “appropriate and meets our basic standards.”
Seriously. It doesn’t take a legal heavyweight to smell what’s really happening here. Manning’s being punished—used as an example to other possible whistleblowers. “Softened up” to testify against Julian Assange in exchange for leniency perhaps. It’s deathly cynical as well as constitutionally unsound to pretend otherwise.
We know why Manning can’t sleep at night, Mr. President. The question is, how can you?
Nancy Goldstein is an independent journalist. You can keep up with her on Twitter at @nancygoldstein.