Pressured from above, Quantico counselors fail to advocate for Bradley Manning
MSGT Craig Blenis, a Gunnery Sergeant at Quantico until it closed, testified on Sunday. Pressured from his superiors and fearing media scrutiny. Blenis, who was the young whistleblower’s counselor at the brig, kept Bradley in restrictive conditions for nine long months. See notes from day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4, and day 5. Bradley’s hearing continues at Ft. Meade December 5-7, and then December 10-12. The trial is now expected to begin either March 6 or March 18.
By Nathan Fuller, Bradley Manning Support Network.
On Sunday, December 2, 2012, Bradley Manning’s counselor, then-Gunnery Sergeant Craig Blenis, testified at Ft. Meade, MD, about his involvement in keeping Bradley in effectively solitary confinement for more than nine months at the Quantico Marine brig in Virginia, from July 2010 to April 2011. He was testifying for the defense’s motion to dismiss charges based on unlawful pretrial punishment.
As Quantico’s programs chief, Blenis – who’s now a Master Sergeant — was Bradley’s counselor and said he therefore considered himself Bradley’s “advocate” at the brig. However, while brig psychiatrists recommended for nine months that Bradley be removed from the restrictive Prevention of Injury (POI) watch, and while Bradley himself continually said he wasn’t feeling suicidal or at risk of self-harm, MSGT Blenis recommended Bradley remain on POI every week.
Bradley complained about the restrictive conditions, and psychiatrists said that they were detrimental to Bradley’s health, because they amounted to solitary confinement. Bradley wasn’t able to speak to any other detainees, as his adjacent cells were empty, he only got 20 minutes outside of his 6’x8′ cell each day, and when he left the cell the entire brig was in “lockdown” and he had to wear metal shackles on his hands and feet and be escorted everywhere he went. Guards and officials have testified that Bradley is far and away the only detainee they’ve ever seen or kept on POI for this long – previously, the longest they’ve seen a detainee on POI was merely a few days, or two weeks at most, while Bradley was kept in isolation for nine months. Military psychiatrists say these conditions can be detrimental to a detainee’s mental health, especially as they last this long.
Questioned for several hours yesterday by defense lawyer David Coombs, MSGT Blenis said that Bradley’s previous history was cause for concern: in Kuwait, disoriented and isolated in what he called an “animal cage,” Bradley had considered committing suicide. Upon arriving at Quantico, Bradley wrote on an intake form that regarding suicide he was “always planning, never acting.” However, Bradley testified this week that he didn’t feel suicidal at Quantico, and that the intake remark wasn’t serious: he had guards standing over him who ordered him to “write something” and he knew that he’d be placed on Suicide Risk watch no matter what he wrote. Furthermore, brig psychiatrists Cpt. William Hoctor and Cpt. Ricky Malone testified this week that they didn’t consider those incidents to be long-term problems – they said that suicidal thoughts are frequently temporary, and by mid-August, Bradley posed no risk to himself and didn’t require these harsh conditions.
We may hear from the brig’s commanding officers (CO), Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) Averhart and later CWO Barnes, later this week or next – this hearing was extended to include December 5-7, 10-12. Emails revealed that CWO Averhart directed MSGT Blenis in January 2011 to keep Bradley on POI until his 706 ‘Sanity board’ – which determines if Bradley is fit to stand trial – had completed. MSGT Blenis confirmed that this was true, even though the 706 process had been paused and wasn’t expected to resume for two months, but MSGT Blenis said that even though this was an order from a superior officer, it didn’t factor in his decision to keep Bradley on POI.
He stressed that Bradley’s minimal communication with him did factor heavily in his decision, although he testified that Bradley was a generally quiet guy, that they didn’t share many interests, and that Bradley did open up about his interest in computers and his struggle with his family relationships. Bradley frequently gave very short answers to MSGT Blenis’s questions, the counselor said, and he seemed to just want their discussions to end. Staff Sergeant Ryan Jordan, who also testified for this motion, sometimes filled in for MSGT Blenis as Bradley’s counselor. He testified that Bradley was quiet and didn’t want to talk at length — even though he also testified that he and Bradley liked to talk about college basketball. Bradley was a Syracuse fan, and he filled out a March Madness bracket and followed the tournament. SSgt. Jordan still said Bradley’s otherwise quiet demeanor was a consistent cause for concern.
MSGT Blenis called this poor communication, and said he could never build a relationship with Bradley to be able to trust him not to harm himself. But other testimony suggests Bradley had good reason not to build a rapport with MSGT Blenis. Bradley said this week that MSGT Blenis indicated to him multiple times that Cpt. Hoctor’s recommendations kept him on POI – even though Cpt. Hoctor, who did build an amiable rapport with the young Army private, repeatedly advised the brig to remove Bradley’s restrictions, and became frustrated when he realized he was being ignored.
MSGT Blenis denied this claim, but evidence shows he wasn’t always acting Bradley’s best interest. On December 13, 2010, a package arrived at Quantico for Bradley. MSGT Blenis asked Bradley about the package, and he said it was probably for his birthday, which was four days later. MSGT Blenis then rejected the package behind Bradley’s back – in an email to his CO explaining the rejection, he said the relative wasn’t an approved sender, but also that “we just felt like being dicks.” In a later conversation, Bradley was withdrawn and didn’t feel like communicating with the counselor because he was upset that his family had ignored his birthday.
In another email, on March 4, 2011, two days after Quantico officials removed Bradley’s underwear and one day after he was forced to stand naked for the morning count, MSGT Blenis emailed fellow officials telling them take Bradley’s “panties” from him “right before he lays down.”
In his motion, Coombs writes,
“The fact that a senior enlisted would refer to a detainee’s undergarments as “panties” in correspondence with four subordinates demonstrates not only incredibly poor judgment, but also a culture where anything goes. The Defense also believes that the “panties” comment reflects intolerance and homophobia…”
On the stand, MSGT Blenis denied malicious intent, saying he occasionally refers to his own underwear as “panties.”
MSGT Blenis was supposed to be Bradley’s advocate at Quantico. Bradley said he saw the counselor as his “conduit,” and MSGT Blenis told him he wished he had a “100 PFC Mannings” at the brig.
But clearly, he felt differently behind closed doors. What remains unclear is how much MSGT Blenis was pressured from his higher officials to keep Bradley isolated. In addition to the directive from his commanding officer, CWO Averhart, MSGT Blenis said he was ordered to fill out weekly reports on Bradley Manning – the only detainee for which these were required – and send them up his chain of command. MSGT Blenis said he knew these emailed reports went as high up as base commander Col. Daniel Choike, who he “assumed” forwarded them to three-star General George Flynn.
He also said “higher ups” – high-ranking officials – came to tour the brig, and while they didn’t see Bradley personally, it was clear he was the reason for their visit. These higher ups, MSGT Blenis said, “don’t just show up for the hell of it.” MSGT Blenis emailed the psychiatrist, Cpt. Hoctor, telling him that the media would be “knocking on your door fairly often.”
The media – as we know well – did take an interest. Reports of Bradley’s mistreatment circulated in late 2010, and by early 2011, more than half a million people had signed a petition to end it. Protests around the world, and at Quantico specifically, made an impact. Officials have testified this week that protests at the brig forced some guards and others who worked there to change their traffic routes and were “annoyed” (as I documented on day three) – leading many to speculate that they took that frustration out on Bradley.