WASHINGTON — Under increasing public pressure and facing accusations of prisoner abuse, the Pentagon said Tuesday that it will transfer the soldier suspected of leaking secret documents to the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The change for Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, which could come as early as Wednesday, sources told NBC News, could include a dramatic shift in the conditions of his confinement.
Manning was held in maximum security at the Marine Corps brig Quantico, Va., for more than eight months where he spent 23 hours a day and ate all his meals in an isolated cell, was permitted no contact with other prisoners, and was forced to wear chains and leg irons any time he was moved. He also was often forced to strip naked at night and stand nude in his cell for early morning inspection.
The Marines claim they took his clothes to prevent him from injuring himself. Military and Pentagon officials insist the action was punishment for what the Marines considered disrespect from Manning. Such tactics for disciplinary reasons are against military regulations.
Once at Leavenworth, he’ll be placed in a new medium-security facility. Although locked in a cell at night, he’ll have some freedom of movement in an open day room, have contact and take meals with fellow prisoners, shower when he wants and have access to books and TV. He will also have three hours a day of recreation time.
This will make visits with his civilian attorney, family and some friends more difficult, but it’s the nearest such facility for pre-trial confinement the Army has. Manning will have to return to Fort Belvoir in Virginia for any court appearances. Putting him back into Quantico is “out of the question,” according to Pentagon and military officials, so the Army may make arrangements with a civilian detention facility to hold him temporarily as needed.
U.S. military officials, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, deny Manning was tortured, but one said "the Marines blew it” in terms of how they treated him.
Both White House and Pentagon officials grew increasingly concerned by the human rights drumbeat of public accusations and criticism of Manning’s treatment and wanted to put an end to it, they said.
At a press conference Tuesday, Pentagon officials said the move was made at the request of Manning's lawyers and because a mental competency evaluation had been completed.
Defense Department general counsel Jeh C. Johnson said the Leavenworth facility would better serve Manning during a lengthier confinement before his trial. The brig at Quantico is meant for short term stays, usually of one to two months. he said.
But Johnson also praised the staff at the Quantico brig. When asked if he thought bad judgment had been used in Manning's treatment there, he said: "No, I do not believe that."
But Manning's defense attorney, David E. Coombs, said the timing of the move was not a surprise.
"The defense was in the process of filing a writ of habeas corpus seeking a court ruling that the Quantico Brig violated PFC Manning’s constitutional right to due process," Coombs wrote on his blog.
"While the defense hopes that the move to Fort Leavenworth will result in the improvement of PFC Manning’s conditions of confinement, it nonetheless intends to pursue redress at the appropriate time for the flagrant violations of his constitutional rights by the Quantico confinement facility," he wrote.
Lt. Col. Dawn Hilton, in charge of the medium-security detention facility at Leavenworth, said Manning will undergo a comprehensive evaluation upon his arrival to assess whether he is a risk to his own or others' safety.
She said the facility, which opened in January, is designed for long-term detention of pretrial inmates. Officials agreed that Manning's case, which involves hundreds of thousands of highly sensitive and classified documents, is very complex and could drag on for months, if not years.
Manning faces nearly two dozen charges, including aiding the enemy, a crime that can bring the death penalty or life in prison.
His transfer to Leavenworth comes a bit more than a week after a U.N. torture investigator complained that he was denied a request to make an unmonitored visit to Manning. Pentagon officials said he could meet with Manning, but it is customary to give only the detainee's lawyer confidential visits.
NBC News' Courtney Kube contributed to this report.
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