Chelsea ManningCommunityThe Dissenter

Former Quantico Brig Commander Testifies at Bradley Manning’s ‘Unlawful Pretrial Punishment’ Hearing

Ret. Col. Daniel Choike, former Quantico Brig commander (Sketch by Clark Stoeckley)

Retired Colonel Daniel Choike, who served as the Quantico Marine Brig commander while Manning was imprisoned there for nine months, took the stand to testify during the latest hearing in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning. The defense had him take the stand to testify on the confinement conditions that were imposed on Manning while at the Brig as part of argument over an “unlawful pretrial punishment” motion.

The motion calls for all charges with prejudice to be dismissed or “10-for-1 sentencing credit” for the 258 days Manning served in conditions “equivalent to solitary confinement.” It is the subject of the hearing all week.

Choike gave over three hours of testimony from the witness stand. The most critical testimony probably came during Judge Army Col. Denise Lind’s line of questioning. She asked him about the Sanity Board that was to determine whether Manning was mentally fit to stand trial or not. It was having problems meeting and completing its work. Lind asked if he believed Quantico was adequately resourced to house someone of Manning’s stature.

Other maximum custody (MAX) detainees, the inability to predict the number of incoming detainees, downsizing and the fact that the Brig did not have “dedicated medical support” all made it difficult. Choike answered “no.” The Brig was not a place for long-term confinement. It was adequate for 90 days. When he found out Manning was being transferred to Quantico, he told Brigadier General Karl Horst of the Army that he was concerned about “long-term pretrial confinement.” Choike informed the brigadier general he did not “believe Manning should be detained more than 90 days at the Brig.”

There was a Sanity Board that was expected to meet and determine whether Manning was mentally fit to stand trial. The Board was having problems coordinating and getting their report completed. It did not finish until April and asked if the Brig had held off from making any decisions on Manning’s designation as a MAX detainee or a detainee on “prevention of injury” (POI) status until the Board completed its report. Choike denied there was any connection.

In December 2010, Barnes had issued a directive that Manning was to stay in POI until the Board finished. Choike denied that this was a “directive” but it was in the weekly update indicating Manning was to remain in POI until the Board completed it duties. On January 12, 2011, this same line appeared in another update from a Brig Officer in Charge. It clearly stated Brig officers were “directed” to keep him classifed as MAX custody and on POI til Board finished. Still, Choike disagreed that it was an order.

Throughout Manning’s confinement, a classification & assignment board (C&A) met to determine whether his classification as a MAX and POI detainee was appropriate. They consistently determined he needed to remain in current confinement conditions. As Coombs asked, what was the use of the C&A if it was going to be issuing findings on Manning that kept him on MAX and POI until the Board completed its work? Who knew when the Board would be done? It had not been ordered to resume its work until February 2011. In December and January, it was not moving any closer to finishing.

Many of the questions Manning’s defense lawyer, David Coombs, had centered on emails sent between officers at the Brig. They were part of a set of over 1,200 emails the defense became aware of in July of this year. Through litigation in August, the defense convinced the government to willfully hand over the six hundred emails (in addition to the 84 emails, which initially tipped the defense off that there were more emails between officers that existed). The judge ordered the government to hand over all but 12 of the rest of the six hundred or so remaining emails. These were used by the defense to meticulously demonstrate how the Brig abused or failed Manning.

Coombs asked Choike about weekly updates he was receiving from Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart and Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes, who succeeded Averhart. These updates on Manning’s condition would be forwarded to him. However, they would not go up to Lt. Gen. George Flynn, who was the Quantico Base commander. Choike suggested Flynn was not interested in details in the weekly updates. Essentially, Flynn was not concerned with Manning’s condition. He was only concerned with what was being reported about Manning’s confinement at Quantico in the media, especially in the months between December 2010 and March 2011.

This included Firedoglake editor-in-chief Jane Hamsher and Manning’s friend David House being denied access to the base in January 23, 2011. It included details on Manning’s cousin visiting him. It included details on Coombs caling the Brig to tell Manning that Hamsher and House had been denied access. It included being informed that a public affairs officer was ready to respond to media inquiries on the incident at the gate. But, according to Choike, he did not want to know details on Manning’s confinement conditions from lower-level officers.

In December 2010, as one high-level officer in the Marine Corp put it, they needed to stay ahead of the “disinformation campaign” in the media. Flynn was in on proposed responses on Manning. Officers put together a breakdown of media coverage “by type of media and whether the story was favorable to Quantico or not.” They tracked online, blogs, commentary and even tracked Twitter activity.

Flynn was infuriated when he read about the incident involving Manning being stripped naked and made to stand outside his cell naked for roll call in the morning in the New York Times. He sent a message, ““It would be good to have leadership have heads up on these things before they’re read in the early bird!” (Early bird is a military synopsis of various news stories/press releases.)

The March incident received particular attention during the hearing. This was the incident where Manning said to an officer if he really wanted to kill himself he could with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops. That led Barnes to decide to take his underwear and flip-flops away without consulting any mental health professionals.

Coombs described in the motion:

…On 3 March 2011, PFC Manning was told to get out of bed for the morning DBS [Duty Brig Supervisor] inspection. PFC Manning was not given any of his clothing back before the morning inspection. PFC Manning walked towards the front of his cell with his suicide blanket covering his genitals. The Brig guard outside his cell told him that he was not permitted to cover himself with his blanket because that would mean that he would not be standing at parade rest. PFC Manning relinquished the blanket and stood completely naked at parade rest, which required him to stand with his hands behind his back and his legs spaced shoulder width apart. PFC Manning stood at parade rest for about three minutes until the DBS arrived. Once the DBS arrived, everyone was called to attention. The DBS and the other guards walked past PFC Manning’s cell. The DBS looked at PFC Manning, paused for a moment, and then continued to the next detainee’s cell. After the DBS completed his inspection, PFC Manning was told to go sit on his bed. Several minutes later, PFC Manning was given his clothes and allowed to get dressed. PFC Manning was also required to stand naked at attention the next four days…

Choike testified in court Manning had stood naked for morning count because, although he was given blankets or a smock to cover himself, he chose to stand naked.

Dumbfounded, Coombs replied, “Who told you that?” And added, “Why in the world would a brig allow a detainee to stand naked?” Choike maintained he had “appropriate clothing or blankets to cover himself” and chose not to do so.

Over the objection of the government and faced with skepticism from the judge, Coombs continued. He asked why a DBS would allow this and would not correct the situation. Choike said Manning was “just one individual within” the Brig. The DBS probably had other duties or responsibilities, which is complete nonsense given the fact that Manning was such a high-profile detainee who was placed in a cell that could easily be observed.

Finally, it was asked why Manning did not have his confinement conditions adjusted after being removed from medication he was taking for anxiety. Choike stated he did not believe he had the authority. Pressed by Coombs, he said he was responsible as the installation commander but did not have the authority to make that call. He said this again, “Overall, I am responsible but to not actually make decisions about a detainee in the Brig.”

Coombs was befuddled and asked if he could do something if an egregious incident occurred where a detainee was tied to a radiator or something like that. Choike said yes. He would have the authority. So, basically, Choike did not find the March incident where Manning was stripped naked to be egregious.

And that is the key to understanding the officers, who have been in key positions of authority to ensure Manning’s rights were not violated. From Col. Carl Coffman, the Special Court Martial Convening Authority, to Daniel Choike, the Quantico Brig commander, to Lt. Gen. George Flynn, the Quantico Base commander, none of these people in positions of authority were willing to take any steps to bring this travesty and farce to an end.

Staff Judge Advocate Lt. Col. Christopher Greer sent an email joking about Manning having his underwear taken from him:

 …As Dr. Seuss would say, I can wear them in a box. I can wear them with a fox. I can wear them with socks. I can wear them in the day so I say. I can’t wear them at night. My comments gave the staff a fright…

This crude variation of Green, Eggs and Ham did not bother someone like Choike. None of what was going on, despite the fact that he admitted from the outset it was bad to have Manning imprisoned more than 90 days at Quantico, motivated him to take action.

All officers like Choike cared about was that—as Flynn put it— Quantico would not be “left the holding the bag” if something happened to Manning. And whatever they could do to limit media attention or get out in front of details on Manning’s confinement appearing on Coombs’ blog would be done to make it seem there was nothing going on with Manning and there was no reason for any senior officials or members of the public to be concerned.

*Correction: It was Lt. Col. Christopher Greer who sent the email with the Dr. Seuss couplet, not Barnes as suggested in a previous version of this post. 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."