WikiLeaks Suspect: “I Remember Thinking I’m Going to Die”

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Watch WikiSecrets, FRONTLINE’s investigation into Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and the largest intelligence breach in U.S. history, and The Private Life of Bradley Manning, a profile of the early years of the young soldier now accused of leaking more than half a million classified U.S. government documents.

FORT MEADE, MD — In a highly anticipated moment, PFC Bradley Manning took the stand in his pre-court martial hearing today, for the first time presenting the court and the world the story of his confinement in his own words. Manning sounded a little nervous and off-balance at the start of his testimony, but quickly grew comfortable and more relaxed, smiling and speaking confidently.

In his testimony Manning recounted his arrest in Iraq and subsequent confinement in Kuwait. He said he was held in one of two “cage-like cells,” for the first 72 hours of his captivity.  Responding to reports that he made a noose out of his bed sheets, Manning said “I don’t recall making it, but I remember thinking I’m going to die, I’m stuck in this … animal cage.”

Manning described his time in confinement in Kuwait as his lowest point.  “I didn’t want to die, but I also wanted to get out the cage,” he recalled. “I felt trapped in the cage all the time. … [I had] pretty much given up on a lot of things.  My world had shrunk to this eight-by-eight foot metal cell.”

Manning said that he avidly followed world news and current events and that being cut off from the world was particularly difficult.  “I’m generally a pretty social and extroverted person,” he testified. “I became more insular, lived inside my head. … I started to fall apart.”

Manning testified that when he was flown out of Kuwait, he had no idea where he was going until the pilot spoke over the intercom.  Despite the fact he was moving from one confinement to another, Manning said he was practically ecstatic to return to the United States.  “I … thought I wasn’t going to set foot on American soil for a long time,” he said.  “I was relieved.”

But Manning’s cell in the brig at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., was even smaller than his cage in Kuwait.  He found himself in an eight by-six foot cell, where he stayed in solitary confinement for more than 23 hours a day.  He was placed on a suicide watch and given “Prevention of Injury” (POI) status because of the noose incident in Kuwait. Yesterday, two of the psychiatrists who cared for Manning at Quantico testified they believed that Manning’s POI status was unjustified at that point, but were disregarded by Quantico authorities.

During his testimony, an outline of Manning’s Quantico cell was taped to the courtroom floor.  Manning and Coombs walked around the outline to give a sense of Manning’s confinement and showed examples of the special “suicide smock,” blanket, and mattress he was provided — the only items, Manning noted, not physically attached to the cell.  Manning donned the suicide smock to demonstrate how odd, bulky and uncomfortable the garment was, testifying that he once became stuck in it, requiring assistance to get out.

Earlier this week, two of the senior officers in charge of Manning’s detention at Quantico described what they considered erratic behavior from Manning; tonight, Manning had the opportunity to give his side.  Responding to reports that he had been staring in the mirror and making faces, he responded “Yes, the most entertaining thing in there is the mirror.” Manning attributed that and other odd behaviors — dancing in his cell, playing “peek-a-boo” with the guards — as stemming from, “just sheer, complete, out-of-my-mind boredom.”

Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, asked him about reports that he had abruptly removed a large number of people from his visitation list, including his father. “It wasn’t my intent to remove a lot of people,” Manning responded, adding that he “intended two in particular, being my father and Mr. David House,” whom Manning met through an acquaintance, because they had spoken with the media.  He appeared to feel particularly betrayed by his father for doing an interview with FRONTLINE the same day he visited Manning.  Manning said his father Brian “said early in the day he was really happy not doing interviews; he said he wouldn’t but did the same day.”

Earlier in the day, Col. Dawn Hilton, commander at Fort Leavenworth Joint Regional Correctional Facility, where Manning was transferred after his time at Quantico, testified via phone about receiving Manning.  Based on his evaluation at Ft. Leavenworth, Manning was placed on “medium” custody, the lowest security classification possible.

Suddenly in a place where he could socialize with other inmates and move around outside his cell without shackles and guards, Manning testified that he felt, “awkward,” adding that he wasn’t “used to being outside of anything without restraints at that time. … I had a sense … the hammer would come down soon.”

The prosecution will begin their cross-examination of Manning Friday morning when the hearing reconvenes.

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