Update: As bmaz points out, the Army’s release of either the occurrence or details of any mental health referral, consultation or treatment is a violation of Manning’s privacy and HIPPA-related rights.

Last night’s DoD press conference on Bradley Manning was a bizarre affair. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell was snappish, hectoring and ill-prepared. They were clearly thrown when Jim Miklaszewski reported that the Quantico brig commander acted inappropriately in putting Manning on suicide watch, and the journalists present greeted Morrell’s excuses with extreme skepticism.

As Marcy Wheeler noted earlier, “It’s clear…that DOD’s press shop is struggling to craft a party line about Manning’s treatment that both appears coherent and that somehow refutes Miklaszewski’s reporting.”

So what does a flailing press operation do when they can’t kill the public momentum building for an investigation?  Why put out an anonymous hit piece on Bradley Manning to act as a wet blanket, of course:

Probe: Army was warned not to deploy WikiLeaks suspect

Pfc. Bradley Manning’s direct supervisor warned that Manning had thrown chairs at colleagues and shouted at higher-ranking soldiers in the year he was stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., and advised that Manning shouldn’t be sent to Iraq, where his job would entail accessing classified documents through the Defense Department’s computer system.

But superior officers decided to ignore the advice because the unit was short of intelligence analysts and needed Manning’s skills, two military officials familiar with the investigation told McClatchy Newspapers.

“Two military officials familiar with the investigation.”  Anonymous, of course.  It’s an orchestrated hit piece on Manning. How convenient.

They claim he yelled at some people and threw some chairs.  And who do they compare him to?

It’s the second time in just over a year that Army practices have come under intense internal scrutiny after a major security failing. A similar probe after an Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, killing 13, also focused on how superiors failed to take action despite signs that Maj. Nidal Hassan, who had exchanged e-mails with a radical Yemeni-American cleric, was seriously disaffected and might turn violent.

Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 people.

At one point, Manning, who joined the Army in 2007, saw a mental health specialist, officials said, but it’s unclear what came of that meeting.

“Saw a mental health specialist.”  Once. Clearly that means he’s in Travis Bickle territory and ready to snap.

Except according to his attorney, Iraq veteran Lieutenant Colonel David Coombs, brig psychiatrists have said Manning is not a danger to himself or others and should be removed from POI watch/MAX custody:

The brig forensic psychiatrist’s recommendation comes as no surprise given the fact PFC Manning has been a model inmate.  At no time has he been disrespectful, violent or noncompliant.  PFC Manning does not exhibit any of the criteria normally established for MAX custody under the Navy Instruction.  Given the consistent recommendation of the brig forensic psychiatrist and PFC Manning’s model behavior, it is unclear why he is still held in MAX custody and under POI watch.

If the brig commander made no mistakes, as Morrell claims, an investigation should not be a threat to anyone involved.  Captain David P. Price, who spent 25 years U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps wrote to Dylan Ratigan today:

Throughout history are instances where individuals have abused their authority. No law or regulation will ever prevent misconduct from occurring. What laws can do, however, is provide a mechanism for holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions, whether it be PFC Manning as concerns the allegations against him; or Brig Commander James Averhart and the accusations being made against him. What is essential is responsible leadership, at all levels in the military chain of command, up to the President, as Commander-in-Chief, if necessary; and through oversight responsibilities of the Congress to ensure that military personnel suspected of offenses are not being abused and that their rights are being protected.

The leak that facilitated this hit piece is the very antithesis of the accountability Captain Price calls for. It demonstrates a sloppy, desperate, out-of-control process where nobody is taking responsibility, and everyone is consumed with throwing blame and CYA.

I have no idea what Bradley Manning did or didn’t do. But if we’re a nation of laws and not of men, then we must guard above all else the integrity of the rules and processes by which we determine  guilt or innocence.  Failure to do so will mean the inevitable slide into despotism and tyranny.

It’s not just Bradley Manning.  We all deserve better than this.