Something is badly amiss in the Department of Defense’s efforts to tell its side of how it is treating Bradley Manning.

It started on Monday when NBC’s Chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski (that is, not a hippie) published an article with two big scoops. First, that investigators have been unable to tie Manning directly to Julian Assange.

U.S. military officials tell NBC News that investigators have been unable to make any direct connection between a jailed army private suspected with leaking secret documents and Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.

The officials say that while investigators have determined that Manning had allegedly unlawfully downloaded tens of thousands of documents onto his own computer and passed them to an unauthorized person, there is apparently no evidence he passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure.

In the same article, Miklaszewski reports what appears to be limited hangout push-back against allegations that Manning was “tortured” (but not “abused”). While Manning was not tortured, Miklaszewski’s sources say, he was improperly put on suicide watch for two days last week.

On Monday, U.S. military officials also strongly denied allegations that Manning, being held in connection with the WikiLeaks’ release of classified documents, has been “tortured” and held in “solitary confinement” without due process.The officials told NBC News, however, that a U.S. Marine commander did violate procedure when he placed Manning on “suicide watch” last week.

Military officials said Brig Commander James Averhart did not have the authority to place Manning on suicide watch for two days last week, and that only medical personnel are allowed to make that call.

Note that both of these scoops were attributed to “US military officials,” though a later reference refers to “official,” singular. Later in the article, he cites, “U.S. Marine and Army officials” stating that Manning “is being treated like any other maximum security prisoner.” If I had to guess, I’d say Miklaszewski was protecting whatever officials gave him the scoop, while more clearly identifying those who pushed back on it.

The following day, CNN’s Chris Lawrence wrote a piece reporting that Brig Commander Averhart was being investigated.

The U.S. military is investigating why the commander of the military jail put Pfc. Bradley Manning, suspected of leaking documents to WikiLeaks, on suicide watch for a few days last week, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan.


An investigation has been launched into whether Brig Commander James Averhart had the authority to place Manning on suicide watch, which is usually ordered by the medical staff.

That report was sourced to David Lapan, by name. Within three hours after that story appeared, CNN pulled the story, first explaining,

The CNN Wire has killed the story slugged US-WikiLeaks-Manning-1 that moved at 2:47 p.m. due to new information. The military spokesman identified in the story says there is no investigation into the decision to put Bradley Manning on suicide watch.

That retraction now names Lapan, again by name. Lawrence was among the first to report, the following day, that Averhart (who a day before was maybe or maybe not under investigation) was being replaced–pursuant to a decision made back in October.

But the really interesting thing came before that, in yesterday’s press briefing by David Lapan’s boss, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. . . [cont’d.] (whose resemblance to the Matrix’ Agent Smith is uncanny, and who notes this was his first press briefing since November). In response to the third question–basically following up on Miklaszewski’s story, asking whether it is true that prosecutors have not been able to tie Manning to Assange–Morrell does not answer the question. Rather, based on his representation that “this case is being taken extremely seriously” and that “they are hard at work at [sic] on building a case,” he “admonishes” journalists to proceed with caution. After that general admonishment, he repeats it, calling out Miklaszewski directly.

But I would avail myself of this opportunity to admonish or warn you all to be extraordinarily careful about how you report on this story, because one thing I can — I do feel comfortable in telling you is that this case is being taken extremely seriously by the investigators both here in the Defense Department and, of course, at the Department of Justice. They are hard at work at on building a case here.

So any pronouncements about a connection or lack of connection, those that have been found or are yet to be found, are just premature at this point. So I’d urge everybody to proceed with caution on this, and probably most stories, for that matter.

So I’m not in a position, unfortunately, to tackle that as directly as I’d like to. But that’s my admonition to you all, including Mr. [Jim “Mik”] Miklaszewski in the front row.

It’s actually not clear how the seriousness with which investigators are approaching a case should serve as a warning to journalists. The assertion is investigators have not yet been able to make a connection; even if Miklaszewski reported tomorrow they had subsequently done so, it would not change the accuracy of his previous reporting.

Morrell’s snide attack is followed by a series of questions, most of which Morrell bats away with details that focus on Manning’s Max status rather than his protection status (much less his suicide watch). But when he is finally asked (putting aside Miklaszewski in the process) about Mannings protective status, he just starts making shit up. Perhaps as a way to save himself, he shifts the discussion from POI status to suicide watch.

Q: The protective order is not designed to punish him for being charged with those crimes. It’s supposed to protect him. I guess we’re trying to —

MR. MORRELL: The protective order — I would — I would imagine that one — when one is confined in the brig, it is not just for their protection that we are worried. We are always worried about our protection. He is charged with very serious crimes. That’s why you isolate someone behind bars. That’s why you confine someone, so that they cannot escape, cannot possibly commit the crimes that they are alleged to have done again.

So it’s not — he is — I think you have it a little backwards. I think you have it that he is being held for his own protection in the manner which he’s being held. That may be, that there — there are reasons that they think that it is for his own benefit that he be held so. But it can also be that he’s being held behind bars because he is a — deemed a threat, that he has been alleged to have committed a very serious crime that potentially undermines our nation’s security, and therefore he needs to be confined during the course of a trial.

Let me interrupt here to note that, according to the WaPo, Manning is 5’2″ and 105 pounds. Morrell is suggesting that this scrawny guy whom I could probably beat up is such a threat to the trained Marines guarding him they put him on protection watch.

Morell continues:

But I would just — what I come back to time and time again, Chris, is the notion that the manner of his confinement is not in the least different from the manner in which anyone else at the brig is being held.

Q: But not everybody’s under that protective order.

MR. MORRELL: I’m — I — you keep coming back to this protective order. I’m not so sure I know what you’re talking about. I described conditions to you, the manner in which he’s being held. And my understanding is that is consistent with how every other person in the brig is being held.

Now, the one exception to that could be this suicide-watch issue. He was placed on suicide watch, as I understand it, for two days. So that can be a difference between how others in the brig are being held. But my understanding is that the manner in which he is being held is not punishment for any behavior, but this is the standard protocol for how people at the brig are held, especially people with the gravity of the charges he is facing.

After claiming that the suicide watch was standard protocol, he finally gives Miklaszewski a chance, who starts by saying that the allegation that his reporting is incorrect is, itself, incorrect.


Q: Well, since you mentioned me by name and, through implication, tied me to incorrect reporting, which would be incorrect, I do have a couple of questions.

Miklaszewski walks Morrell through the key scoop of his reporting–that Averhart violated protocol by putting Manning on suicide watch. And while Morrell claims that the Brig Commander–the same one whose replacement was announced this same day–has discretion to put anyone on suicide watch, when Miklaszewski asks if it was punitive, Morrell starts repeatedly answering that he doesn’t know.

MR. MORRELL: Fire away.

Q: Was the brig commander at Quantico in error in putting Private Manning on suicide watch for two days last week? Did he violate protocol?

MR. MORRELL: My understanding is that he did not and that, despite your reporting, which suggests that only doctors at the facility can make a call of that nature, what I’ve been told is that the brig commander is ultimately responsible for the well-being and confinement of everyone in his charge. And so he has the wherewithal to make decisions based upon input from others, including doctors, about how it is best to treat people given the current circumstances.

He made a judgment call. It sounds like that he put him under suicide watch for a period of two days. But as I understand it, he was well within his rights to do so as the commander of the brig.

Q: And is it within his authority to put somebody on suicide watch for a disciplinary purpose?

MR. MORRELL: I frankly am not aware of all the regulations that he operates under. But I would imagine that, as the brig commander, he has extraordinary discretion in terms of how best to run that facility, how best to protect the well-being of the people he — who he’s charged with safekeeping. And I don’t know all that goes into, frankly, Mik, making a decision about one — about when one needs to be watched more carefully in the event they may be considering doing harm to themselves.

Q: And was Manning taken off suicide watch at the urging of Army lawyers?

MR. MORRELL: I don’t know. I don’t know. But even if it were at the urging of Army lawyers, it would ultimately have to be a — the judgment of the brig commander that that was the appropriate course of action. And he would not have done it unless he thought that was the best way to proceed, both for his facility and the well-being of people there and, of course, for Private Manning’s well-being.

That is, though Morrell was clear in asserting that Averhart had the authority to put Manning on suicide watch (which even Morrell concedes would be treatment different from that of others) for whatever reason, he admits he doesn’t know what regulations guide Averhart’s decisions and whether it was done punitively.

All of which doesn’t offer much clarity on Manning’s treatment. It’s clear–with Lapan’s flip-flop and Morrell’s inability to answer key questions–that DOD’s press shop is struggling to craft a party line about Manning’s treatment that both appears coherent and that somehow refutes Miklaszewski’s reporting.

But nowhere in Morrell’s briefing does he actually get around to refuting the two main assertions in Miklaszewski’s reporting.



Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.