Testimony from Col. Carl Coffman, who served as the Special Court Martial Convening Authority from August 2010 to the summer of this year, indicates avoiding media attention may have played a role in delaying the government’s processing of the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning. The soldier, who is accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks, has been in pre-trial confinement for around nine hundred days and his defense argues his Sixth Amendment rights have been violated.
Coffman took the witness stand to provide testimony in support of the government’s argument against a defense motion alleging Manning’s speedy trial rights have been violated. He discussed how he had signed delays that repeatedly pushed back a preliminary hearing called an Article 32 hearing, which must be held in order to determine whether to proceed to a court-martial. He explained some of the process for ordering and convening a sanity board to review whether Manning was mentally fit to determine whether he was mentally fit and understood the charges against him.
Sanity boards convened for military cases are not always ordered. When they are, they usually consist of doctors from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Coffman said because Manning’s “suicide risk” while held in detention in Kuwait and his transgender issues were part of why he ordered the board.
In early August 2010, Coffman ordered the sanity board but the board was delayed, according to Coffman, because members of the board had to secure proper security clearances “in order to conduct the board.” Preliminary classification reviews of information were also being conducted to determine what Manning was going to talk about before the sanity board.
When Coffman ordered it to restart on February 3, 2011, the board had more problems. The members had scheduling conflicts themselves. The board had a difficult time scheduling time in a secure intelligence facility that they needed to use to complete their evaluation. Coffman also instructed them to meet and conduct their work during after-hours on weekdays or on weekends.
Questioned by military prosecutor Cpt. Hunter White, Coffman stated he knew it was a “high visibility case and just didn’t feel the need for Pfc. Manning to be exposed to a bunch of media attention on his way to conduct an interview before the sanity board.” Government facilities are not too crowded on the weekend, he added. It is “typically the best time to be discreet.”
“He’s been accused of something,” Coffman answered. “He doesn’t need the media attention or any other attention for that matter.”
On first glance, this answer appears to show a concern for the rights of the accused. The defense may have even appreciated the thought that Coffman gave to giving this instruction so media would not be publishing more stories with headlines suggesting Manning was insane. But, Coffman really did not set the sanity board up to only meet after hours on weekdays or on weekends to shield Manning from the press. He did it to shield the military and the US government from the press.
David Coombs, Manning’s defense attorney, asked Coffman during his cross-examination about the “guidance” he gave on when the sanity board should meet. He asked him about how the prosecution had only been able to schedule time in a secure intelligence facility on Saturdays. Coffman did not recall if this was exactly how everything panned out, but, if this was so, he said they would have been following what he instructed.
Pfc. Manning had to be moved to and from the facility and in and out of vehicles, Coffman explained. “This was getting a lot of attention in the media. We already had experiences with different agencies and organizations coming out and expressing their opinions.” It was “easier” on the sanity board to “have privacy.”
If “the media finds out,” Coffman said, “It then becomes a public event.” I was “just trying to prevent it from becoming a public event.”
Presumably, the military did not want press their with cameras taking photos of Manning arriving and leaving. They also did not want demonstrations or rallies outside facilities. Meeting only on Saturdays also did not necessarily guarantee the sanity board would remain under wraps (however, based on lack of information known to press and public from the spring of 2011 when the board met to now, it appears to have worked).
Dr. Michael Sweda, a psychologist who was part of the board, was having difficulty “coordinating suitable dates” because the board was only to meet on Saturdays. A memorandum Sweda sent indicated he needed an “additional 57 days” because he was having trouble getting times for the final interview, which was to take place in a secure intelligence facility. These concerns were made clear to the prosecution, but Coffman interpreted the complication as a typical issue caused by members working in different places. Sweda requested the board meet on days besides the weekend, but, according to Coffman, he didn’t recall that.
Around this time, Coffman approved an extension moving the board’s deadline for completion of the sanity board to April 16. Then, on April 15, when that deadline could not be met and the board wanted until April 29 to complete the evaluation, he allowed the board to delay its final report one more time and set a date of completion for April 22.
It is known that the military has been concerned about the attention this case attracted and the protesters, who might show up to support Manning. In August, Coombs spoke in court about emails between commanders and officers at the Quantico Marine brig that it had discovered the prosecution had and knew existed after 84 emails were given to the defense. The defense found out there were nearly 1,300 emails from the brig, where Manning was held in detention and conditions that essentially amounted to solitary confinement. Six hundred were given to the defense in August and later Judge Army Col. Denise Lind ordered all but 12 of the remaining hundreds of emails to be handed over to the defense.
Coombs described in court how the emails showed negative media attention was of more importance to the brig commanders than whether Manning was being treated unlawfully or inhumanely. He had been able to tell from the 84 emails released already how concerned the brig was with how the media would make the brig look in their coverage. They did not want anything to happen. They wanted to do what they wanted and keep him in maximum custody and suicide risk and do everything they could to prevent negative publicity. For example, he said one email noted that Manning’s friend, David House, visited and was turned away and the military needed to do a better job of having “spin” ready for media when this happened again. Likewise, when Manning was forced to stand naked, Coombs said the public affairs staff wanted to make sure they had “spin” the next time this happened.
In January 2011, protesters were on the base and Manning was placed on suicide risk. Officers at the brig thought the protests had made life difficult and so they were going to make life difficult for Manning. It was, Coombs suggested, no coincidence the guards placed Manning on suicide risk the same day there had been protests.
“While a three-star general was ordering Bradley suffer senselessly abusive treatment at Quantico, the Convening Authority in his court martial was trying to shield him from the public view,” said Jeff Paterson of the Bradley Manning Support Network. “Military officials were happy to draw media attention to themselves when condemning Bradley as a traitor or suggesting blood was on his hands. But while he was enduring what many describe as torturous conditions, they were suddenly very concerned for Bradley’s privacy.”
The priority then-Special Court Martial Convening Authority Carl Coffman placed on controlling the story and preventing the press from being able to cover the sanity board clearly prolonged the process. It is not necessarily the sole reason why it is questionable whether Manning’s speedy trial rights have been respected. However, it did result in months of delay. The preliminary Article 32 hearing, which was held in December 2011, would likely have been held much earlier if this focus on keeping what was happening with the case secret had not existed.