WASHINGTON, DC – State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has resigned after publicly crossing swords with the Pentagon over the treatment of an Army soldier accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military reports and sensitive diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.
The chain of events that led to Crowley’s exit was set in motion Thursday when Crowley appeared at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology seminar and called the Pentagon’s handling of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is detained at the brig at Quantico, “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”
Crowley’s public criticism angered some at the Pentagon and others across the administration because it put him directly at odds with Defense Department officials who have spent weeks trying to defend Manning’s treatment. The soldier is being detained under near-constant lockdown, and he filed a formal complaint about being forced to strip each night at bedtime.
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.”
Obama never said explicitly whether he agreed with the military’s handling of Manning. White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to elaborate on the president’s remarks.
In a statement Sunday, Crowley, notably made no apology for his remarks, but acknowledged that they made his continued service untenable.
“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,” Crowley said.
“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,” Crowley said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that she accepted Crowley’s resignation “with regret.”
His service, she wrote, “is motivated by a deep devotion to public policy and public diplomacy, and I wish him the very best.”
According to administration officials, Crowley had been on the outs with Clinton, and rarely accompanied her on her travels abroad. Michael Hammer, President Barack Obama’s NSC spokesman, had been sent to State earlier this year, and some officials expected him to succeed Crowley, those sources said.
However, other officials offered a somewhat conflicting version of events, saying that Crowley asked for Hammer as a deputy. The two men worked closely together at the NSC when both were spokesmen there during the Clinton Administration. One source denied any rift between Clinton and Crowley, saying the decision for him not to travel was made largely so Crowley could better oversee State’s large public affairs staff.
Crowley made his remarks about Manning in response to a question at an MIT new media roundtable Thursday in Cambridge, Mass.
“I spent 26 years in the Air Force,” Crowley, a retired colonel, said, according to blog posts by two of those present at the MIT discussion. “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” in detention.
Manning has formally complained that guards at the brig have harassed him and that commanders there have punished him since he was placed in custody in July.
Manning, 25, faces a possible court-martial for leaking vast troves of classified information. The Army recently upgraded the preliminary charges against him to include aiding the enemy. That can be punishable by death, though Army prosecutors said they did not plan to seek capital punishment in Manning’s case.
Earlier this month, guards began demanding that he strip off all his clothes at night. Defense officials have suggested that the measure was needed to keep Manning from attempting suicide. But Manning’s official complaint notes that Navy psychiatrists who have examined him don’t believe he’s a suicide risk.
Journalist Philippa Thomas and Internet researcher Ethan Zuckerman, who both were at the MIT discussion conference, reported Crowley’s comments.
Thomas said she later asked Crowley if his remarks were on the record. She said he had a one-word reply: “‘Sure.’”
“What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official [U.S. government] policy position,” Crowley told Foreign Policy magazine on Friday. “I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning.”
“We are aware of Mr. Crowley’s remarks and have since sent him the facts on PFC Manning’s pre-trial confinement,” a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Dave Lapan, said Saturday.
On Thursday, Manning’s defense lawyer released his client’s latest complaint about his treatment, an 11-page memo that claimed he’s being improperly held on a “prevention of injury” status and required to hand over his clothes to guards each night. The complaint said he was recently given a “smock” to wear at night.
“The determination to strip me of my clothing every night since 2 March 2011 is without justification and therefore constitutes unlawful pretrial punishment,” Manning wrote. He said Navy psychiatrists have repeatedly recommended lifting the prevention of injury restrictions but brig commanders have declined.
The order for Manning to strip at night apparently followed what he described as a sarcastic comment he made to guards — that if he were intent on strangling himself, he could use his underwear or flip-flops.
“As the result of concerns for PFC Manning’s personal safety, his undergarments were taken from him during sleeping hours,” Lapan confirmed. “PFC Manning at all times had a bed and a blanket to cover himself. He was not made to stand naked for morning count but, but on one day, he chose to do so. There were no female personnel present at the time. PFC Manning has since been issued a garment to sleep in at night.”
There were immediate signs Sunday that, as a result of his firing, Crowley was becoming a kind of cult hero for the left.
Jane Hamsher, writing on the liberal Firedoglake website, branded Crowley’s abrupt departure as Obama’s “Saturday Night Massacre” — a reference to the resignation of Attorney General Eliot Richardson and his deputy after they refused to carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
In recent months, Crowley had been a key spokesperson for the administration on the WikiLeaks issue, sometimes offering harsh assessments of Manning’s alleged conduct.
“Someone inside the United States government violated the trust and confidence placed in him. He downloaded material and passed it to people not authorized to have it. That is a crime. We’re investigating that crime and we’re going to prosecute those responsible,” Crowley told CNN in December.