Since last June, Private Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old alleged source of the WikiLeaks hoard of war logs and diplomatic cables, has been kept in solitary confinement at Quantico. He is in his cell for 23 hours a day, frequently deprived of clothing and denied the right even to do press-ups. He has no contact with other prisoners and is forced to acknowledge to a guard that he is OK every five of his waking minutes. Whether this no-touch torture is being inflicted on Manning to force a confession implicating Julian Assange, or is merely an object lesson to other potential whistleblowers, is not clear.

There is a growing rumble of criticism, from the usual scattering of law professors, pop stars and left-liberal media figures, and last Sunday some 400 protesters gathered outside the Quantico brig, including Daniel Ellsberg". Even the State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, a hitherto unflappable font of bland doubletalk, recently blasted the treatment of Manning as ‘ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid’. He resigned the next day.

Obama, however, has stayed serenely on-message. Asked by a reporter last week if he agreed with Crowley, the president said that he had personally inquired with the Pentagon about this and they had assured him that the prisoner’s treatment met their ‘basic standards’ and that ‘some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.’ This treacly concern for Manning’s wellbeing recalls the confinement of political dissidents to mental institutions in both the Soviet Union and the rightwing dictatorships of South America. With his soothing defence of Manning’s ongoing torture, Obama fed through the shredder any last hopes that he would spend political capital on civil liberties.

He can get away with this because the leaks have been hyped as the gravest blow to national security since 9/11. No real damage is discernible, however: only one ambassador has resigned, and the Pentagon has expressly denied that any Afghan informants named in the war logs have suffered reprisals. Julian Assange is hardly the first person to assert the virtues of transparency in statecraft, demands for which used to be a staple of American political discourse: that ‘diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and the public view’ is in the first of Woodrow Wilson’s ‘14 Points’ proposing the creation of the League of Nations.

The Military Whistleblower Protection Act arguably covers Manning’s disclosures, though the government will surely interpret the statute as narrowly as possible. The duty of soldiers to disobey illegal orders – Manning was ordered to convey Iraqi civilians to federal prisons where they were likely to be tortured – was not cooked up by Amnesty International last week but has deep precedential roots in American common law, from Mitchell v. Harmony in 1851 to Little v. Barreme in 1804. Even the Nuremberg Principles, which oblige soldiers to disobey illegal orders, are codified into US military rules in Army Field Manual 27-10.

The legal arguments are all well and good, but in high-profile cases like this the political climate usually shapes the outcome. Forty years ago, Ellsberg had solid support within Congress and the establishment media when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. Manning has no such high-level backing, and the majority of those opposed to his pretrial torture are at pains to stress they don’t condone his alleged actions. When Ellsberg was tried for espionage and treason, he had the full weight of the presidency perversely working for him: Nixon’s henchmen were so hamfisted, so patently criminal – breaking into his psychiatrist’s office to steal records; offering the judge the directorship of the FBI midway through the trial – that they made a guilty verdict impossible. The Obama administration, however, is not a gang of self-defeating slobs and they have gone after whistleblowers with a vindictive focus unmatched by previous governments.

There is another, larger reason why Manning’s torture is unlikely to stop soon. Since the early 1980s, we Americans have grown rather comfortable with long-term solitary confinement and other harsh punishments. ‘Enemy combatants are being treated better than Bradley Manning,’ as one Georgia Congressman has noted, and liberal pundits have bemoaned that the techniques of Bagram and Abu Ghraib have metastasised into the homeland. But if anything the influence has been in the other direction.

There are currently more than 25,000 prisoners in long-term isolation in the United States, seldom-mourned casualties of our wars on crime and drugs, trial runs for the war on terror. Many of these isolated prisoners are, like Manning, periodically and often arbitrarily deprived of what little they have left – clothing, meals, books, contact with visitors – at the often capricious discretion of prison authorities. Such profligate use of long-term solitary confinement was not always normal: in 1890 the US Supreme Court came close to banning the practice as unconstitutionally ‘cruel and unusual’. We must be a lot tougher than our 19th century forebears. Viewed from any angle, Manning’s torture is fully in the American grain.