Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley was until today one of the most prominent players in Washington, the smooth, able and articulate spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, in many senses, for US foreign policy.
Then he did the one thing that is unacceptable in official Washington.
He told the truth about the mistreatment of WikiLeaks suspect Private First Class Bradley Manning by the Department of Defense.
At a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, Crowley described the treatment of PFC Manning as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”
Asked if his remarks about the "mistreatment" of Manning were on the record, Crowley said: "Sure."
Pvt. Manning, who is suspected of being the source of some of the most embarrassing WikiLeaks revelations regarding US foreign policy missteps and misdeeds, is being held in a Marine brig at Quantico. He has had little contact with the outside world, but has indicated in rare interviews and comments through attorneys that he is being treated in a manner that is abusive and to the assessment of many outside observers amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and that may violate international standards designed to prevent abuse and torture of detained suspects.
Crowley was asked at the MIT event to express his views about the Department of Defense “torturing a prisoner in a military brig." While Crowley defended the incarceration of Pvt. Manning, there was no indication of him rejecting the use of the word “torture.”
The comments led to President Obama being questioned on the matter, and to the president’s response that he had 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 assured me that they are."
The presidential response is key here. Obama chose to side with the Pentagon.
That left Crowley no choice but to leave. And on Sunday, the twenty-six-year Air Force colonel who served as senior director of public affairs for the United States National Security Council and Special Assistant to the President for national security affairs in the Clinton administration, resigned.
"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 discrete 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 wrote in his resignation letter. which closed with praise for "the journalists who report on foreign policy and global developments every day, in many cases under dangerous conditions and subject to serious threats. Their efforts help make governments more responsible, accountable and transparent."
While resignations are often seen as personal choices, there can be little doubt that, in this case, Crowley’s hand was forced by the president’s response—and by the reality that there is no place in the current administration for truth-telling regarding the treatment of Pvt. Manning.
This was a classic case of the Obama administration deciding to "shoot the messenger" rather than to do the right thing.
Crowley’s measured statement regarding the mistreatment of Pvt. Manning was both appropriate and needed. But when the president chose to side with the Pentagon as opposed to the State Department spokesman, that was the end of it.
Of the many sad chapters in the story of the misguided US response to the WikiLeaks controvery, and of the mistreatment of Pvt. Manning, this is one of the saddest, as it so clearly exposes the extent to which the president has chosen to place himself on the wrong side of history.