2011-03-13 State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley forced to resign over Manning remarks

The spokesman for the Department of State in the Obama administration, PJ Crowley, resigned today for having criticized the inhumane treatment of U.S. political prisoner Bradley Manning as "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."

PJ Crowley

Commentary in TIME and Politico strongly suggest that Crowley's resignation was a forced move by an administration that does not bear internal criticism. Politico indicates that insider sources have been heralding the replacement of Crowley - with NSC spokesman Mike Hammer - for a long time, and that the Manning incident allowed this to be expedited. Crowley has publicly expressed his pleasure that Hammer will replace him on his twitter account.

Late last week, commentators on the treatment of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning were surprised when Crowley unequivocally criticized the Department of Defense at a small seminar in MIT on new media. An attendee reported his statement:

“I spent 26 years in the air force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid, and I don’t know why the DoD is doing it. Nevertheless, Manning is in the right place.” There are leaks everywhere in Washington – it’s a town that can’t keep a secret. But the scale is different. It was a colossal failure by the DoD to allow this mass of documents to be transported outside the network. Historically, someone has picked up a file of papers and passed it around – the information exposed is on one country or one subject. But this is a scale we’ve never seen before. If Julian Assange is right and we’re in an era where there are no secrets, do we expect that people will release Google’s search engine algorithms? The formula for Coca Cola? Some things are best kept secret. If we’re negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians, there will be compromises that are hard for each side to sell to their people – there’s a need for secrets.

Crowley enlarged upon these statements on Friday, to ForeignPolicy.com:

What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official [U.S. government] policy position.. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning.

Later on Friday, Barack Obama made a statement indicating that he was unconcerned with allegations of abuse at Quantico, since he had asked the people responsible for the alleged abuse, and they had said that Manning's treatment was appropriate. The president carefully avoided personally endorsing the treatment. As reported by Politico, when pressed on the issue, Obama preferred to avoid the question.

The State spokesman’s predicament may have worsened further Friday afternoon, when ABC’s Jake Tapper asked Obama during a White House press conference whether he agreed with Crowley. “With respect to Private Manning, I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are,” Obama said. “I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.” When Tapper pressed the president further, Obama replied tersely, “I think I gave you an answer to the substantive issue.”

PJ Crowley's clarifications were apparently insufficient to ensure his continued career as a spokesperson for the Obama government. Issuing a statement this afternoon, Crowley announced his resignation, and further expanded on his position on Manning's treatment:

The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime under U.S. law... My recent comments regarding the conditions of the pre-trial detention of Private First Class Bradley Manning were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership. The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values... Given the impact of my remarks, for which I take full responsibility, I have submitted my resignation as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and Spokesman for the Department of State...

Although widely heralded as a backstep on his initial comments, Crowley's resignation comments indicate that he may well still have a serious disagreement with the Obama administration over the prudent and ethical exercise of power over individuals. By forcing his resignation over nothing more than the expression of his personal belief, the Obama administration has shown that it is aware of its vulnerability on the subject of Manning's cruel and unusual pretrial treatment, and so concerned about the possibility of political damage arising out this issue that an internal diversity of opinion will not be tolerated, while Manning's treatment continues to enjoy official endorsement. The Obama has, in essence, as this FDL post claims, taken ownership of the human rights abuses being inflicted on the person of alleged whistleblower, Bradley Manning.

Manning has been held for over 10 months in pretrial solitary confinement, and subjected to cruel and unusual conditions criticized widely by the press and by organizations such as Amnesty International. Crowley's statement was in dramatic contrast to that of the spokesman for the Department of Defense, Geoff Morrell, who stated in late January - contrary to the reliable reports of various witnesses - that "assertions by liberal bloggers, or network reporters or others that he is being mistreated, or somehow treated differently than others, in isolation, are just not accurate."

The resignation of a highly visible government official raises the profile of Manning's incarceration in the run-up to International Bradley Manning Support Day, on the 20th of March, for which international protests are planned in support of the alleged whistleblower.