As Democrats campaign against “tough on crime” policies and for criminal justice reform, the party may end up with a congressional nominee who confined former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to an 8-by-6-foot cell at least 23 hours a day.
James Averhart, who is competing in a July 14 run-off election for an Alabama congressional seat, also oversaw a Bush-era military push to track down and punish veterans who deserted the Vietnam War -- an initiative seen as an attempt to discourage soldiers from deserting during the Iraq War.
Averhart, who served as Chief Warrant Officer Five in the U.S. Marine corps, has a solid chance of being the Democratic nominee in the open-seat election in Alabama’s Republican-leaning first congressional district. Professor Kiani Gardner won 44 percent of votes in the March 3 primary contest, while Averhart received 40 percent.
The Democratic Party has sought out veterans to run for red seats in recent years, and the party has increasingly aligned itself with national security officials associated with harsh defense policies. Former deputy CIA director Avril Haines, who helped limit accountability for the agency's torture program, is leading the foreign policy and national security transition team for former Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign.
In the Alabama race, Averhart became a candidate after overseeing the brig at Quantico, Va., where Manning was held between July 2010 and April 2011. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and charged by the government with 22 counts for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The troves of files included a video documenting a U.S. helicopter massacre in Iraq that killed a dozen people, and military intelligence assessment briefs on hundreds of people detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The terms of Manning’s pre-trial imprisonment at Quantico were extremely harsh. She was characterized as a maximum security prisoner and a Prevention of Injury (POI) assignment, both of which carried heavy restrictions.
According to a report from Glenn Greenwald in December 2010, Manning was held at "in intensive solitary confinement" -- completely isolated in a cell all but one hour a day, prohibited from exercising in her cell, and denied the right to have a pillow or sheets.
Amnesty International detailed additional restrictions in a January 2011 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Manning was checked on by guards every five minutes, prohibited from sleeping during the day, and could only sleep in her underwear at night. Manning was kept on POI assignment after her psychiatrist said it wasn’t necessary, according to the group, which said the treatment appeared to violate her human rights. Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in April 2011.
“Averhart and his successor rejected psychiatrists' nearly weekly recommendations to ease the restrictions that kept Manning in an 8-by-6-foot cell at least 23 hours a day,” the Associated Press wrote in 2012.
According to Courthouse News, Averhart put Manning on suicide watch three times despite the recommendations of her psychiatrist. “Suicide watch forced Manning to strip naked, put on a rough smock and sleep on a special mattress and a blanket,” the news service wrote.
The Marines’ chief of corrections specifically criticized Averhart for twice failing to remove Manning from suicide watch for several days after a psychiatrist’s recommendation.
Averhart argued that vague regulatory wording -- "When prisoners are no longer considered to be suicide risks by a medical officer, they shall be returned to appropriate quarters” -- gave him “the opportunity to evaluate” when to release Manning from suicide watch.
In 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She attempted suicide twice in 2016, the second time after she was placed in solitary confinement. Former President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017, days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Unfortunately, Manning’s freedom was only temporary.
She was jailed by the Trump administration last year for refusing to testify before a grand jury about WikiLeaks, briefly released, and jailed again for refusing to cooperate with the grand jury. In March, days after Manning made another attempt on her life, a federal judge announced he had ordered the government to release her and had dismissed the grand jury.
Averhart, who retired from active duty in 2017, also previously led the Marine Corps Absentee Collection Center. In that capacity, he directed an effort to track down Vietnam War deserters by reopening cold cases. They located at least 33 Vietnam-era deserters between 2004 and 2006. The campaign was perceived as an effort to discourage soldiers from deserting during the Iraq War.
"My view is that the Marines are trying to send a message to people in the ranks today that they, too, will be required to participate in a war, whether they think it's illegal or immoral," Louis Font, a lawyer for one ex-Marine accused of deserting during Vietnam, told USA Today in 2006.
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