P.J. Crowley and the Limits of Openness

03.14.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned yesterday facing an Obama Administration backlash against his remarks declaring the treatment of suspected leaker Pfc. Bradley E. Manning “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

The conditions of Private Manning’s detention became the subject of controversy when his lawyer complained that Manning was being involuntarily forced to surrender his clothing to his Quantico military guards each night, supposedly in order to protect him from self-injury. Neither Manning, his attorney, nor any competent medical authority had requested any such “protection.”  Instead, the compulsory nudity was widely perceived as a punitive measure, prompting protests from Amnesty International, among others.  (We urged the DoD Inspector General to investigate the matter, to no known effect.)

Mr. Crowley, an uncompromising critic of leaks of classified information, is no friend of Private Manning who, he said, “is in the right place” (i.e., in jail).  It was the gratuitous abuse of the prisoner that he deemed “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

He was right.  In America, the pre-trial detention of any person who has not been convicted of a crime should be beyond reproach.  In the Manning case (and in too many others), it hasn’t been.

Though in criticizing Defense Department detention policy Mr. Crowley was clearly outside of his bureaucratic “lane,” he deserves credit for speaking out on a matter of principle.  In an intelligent system of government, such views would be freely aired and honestly attended to.  But it seems that there is not much place for such speech in the current Administration.

To its credit, the State Department did publish Mr. Crowley’s non-retraction on its website.  “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,” Mr. Crowley said. “The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values.”

That is to say, the exercise of power today is not always prudent or consistent with our laws and values.  Sadly, Crowley’s departure under these circumstances makes corrective action more difficult.

However, the Defense Department reportedly rescinded its forced nudity policy towards Manning.  “On Friday, officials said they are again providing him with sleeping garments,” the Washington Post reported.

In a new sign of public dissent from the Obama Administration’s intensive pursuit of suspected leakers, former NSA official Thomas Drake, who is accused of unlawful retention of classified information, was designated as the recipient of an award for “truth-telling.”

Named for the late Ron Ridenhour, who brought the My Lai massacre to public attention, “The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling is presented to a citizen, corporate or government whistleblower, investigative journalist, or organization for bringing a specific issue of social importance to the public’s attention.”  (In previous years, but not this year, I was involved in the Award selection process.)  The award to Mr. Drake will be presented in Washington, DC on April 13.  Mr. Drake’s Espionage Act trial is scheduled to begin on April 25 June 13.