A senior US government official has launched an extraordinary attack on the harsh detention conditions of US army private Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks suspect being held in solitary confinement at a marine barracks in Virginia.
Speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), PJ Crowley, spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, described as "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid" the treatment of Pte Manning, who is accused of leaking a trove of State Department cables, and thousands of Pentagon documents on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to the Wikileaks organisation.
But he also said: "Bradley Manning is in the right place." And he repeated Washington's position that secrets were needed if diplomacy was to be successful.
His remarks were made to about two dozen people attending an event organised by the MIT's Centre for Future Civic Media this week, dealing with the impact of new media on foreign policy – among them Philippa Thomas, a BBC journalist on a student fellowship. As she recorded on her blog, one attendee said he wanted to address "the elephant in the room," asking Mr Crowley what he thought about Wikileaks and "torturing a prisoner in a military brig"? Later Ms Thomas asked if his criticism was on the record, and Mr Crowley replied: "Sure."
This latest twist in the Manning saga has only deepened the controversy, suggesting the Obama administration is split on the issue. At a news conference yesterday, President Obama said he had been assured by the Pentagon that the "procedures" used were appropriate and "met basic standards."
In a letter to his lawyers, the 23-year-old private – arrested in May 2010 – claimed he was stripped to his underwear each night and that his prescription glasses were confiscated. The military maintains this is standard procedure for people on suicide watch, such as Pte Manning. But he insists he is being subjected to "unlawful pre-trial punishment," and is harassed by the Marines guarding him.
He has been supported by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which has called on the British government to intervene on behalf of Pte Manning, whose mother is Welsh.
Pte Manning faces 34 counts, including illegally obtaining 250,000 secret US government cables and 380,000 records related to the Iraq war from a military database. He is also accused of aiding the enemy, which is a capital offence. But prosecutors have said they will not seek the death penalty.