PJ Crowley’s Firing Offense: You can have a personal opinion, you just can’t talk publicly about it

Last week, during an “informal conversation” at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, U.S. Department of State Spokesman and Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs, PJ Crowley used three words to described the treatment of Bradley Manning at a DOD brig: “ridiculous,” “counterproductive,” “stupid.” And they hastened his already rumored departure.

Here’s what was said at MIT (h/t to Ethan Zuckerman for the post here):

Charlie deTar: There’s an elephant in the room during this discussion: Wikileaks. The US government is torturing a whistleblower in prison right now. How do we resolve a conversation about the future of new media in diplomacy with the government’s actions regarding Wikileaks?

PJC: “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.

Philippa Thomas blogged about it here, and The Cable’s Josh Rogin confirmed it:

“What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official USG policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning,” Crowley told The Cable. 

The MIT event took place on Thursday. On Friday, President Obama was asked about Crowley’s comments during a nationally televised press conference.  The National Journal quotes President Obama:

“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,” Obama said. “They assured me that they are.”

Jake Tapper of ABC News later reported that while some White House officials knew of Crowley’s comments, White House chief of staff Bill Daley learned of them when ABC News asked that question of the president. Daley reportedly told White House officials of Crowley, “he’s done.”

And indeed less than 48 hours later, PJ Crowley is “done” as top talking head of the State Department. Secretary Clinton released a statement, Sunday, March 13, accepting Mr. Crowley’s resignation.  


It is with regret that I have accepted the resignation of Philip J. Crowley as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. PJ has served our nation with distinction for more than three decades, in uniform and as a civilian. His service to country is motivated by a deep devotion to public policy and public diplomacy, and I wish him the very best. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) Michael Hammer will serve as Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.


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.

I am enormously grateful to President Obama and Secretary Clinton for the high honor of once again serving the American people. I leave with great admiration and affection for my State colleagues, who promote our national interest both on the front lines and in the quiet corners of the world. It was a privilege to help communicate their many and vital contributions to our national security. And I leave with deep respect 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.

Mr. Crowley was an Air Force officer for 26 years. He also previously served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Older and wiser, he most certainly knew what he was getting himself into when he spoke on the record. But perhaps, he also miscalculated that this administration is somehow different from its predecessor when you cross that chalked lines.    

Glenn Greenwald over in Salon.com writes:

So, in Barack Obama’s administration, it’s perfectly acceptable to abuse an American citizen in detention who has been convicted of nothing by consigning him to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, barring him from exercising in his cell, punitively imposing “suicide watch” restrictions on him against the recommendations of brig psychiatrists, and subjecting him to prolonged, forced nudity designed to humiliate and degrade. But speaking out against that abuse is a firing offense. Good to know. As Matt Yglesias just put it: “Sad statement about America that P.J. Crowley is the one being forced to resign over Bradley Manning.” And as David Frum added: “Crowley firing: one more demonstration of my rule: Republican pols fear their base, Dem pols despise it.”

Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Dish writes:

“By firing PJ Crowley for the offense of protesting against the sadistic military treatment of Bradley Manning, the president has now put his personal weight behind prisoner abuse. The man who once said that forced nudity was a form of torture, now takes the word of those enforcing it over a distinguished public servant.”

Note that Mr. Crowley’s statement contained no apology for what he said at that informal gathering. Instead he writes that “The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values.”

Can’t preach about human rights abroad, if we don’t practice it at home.  Or the world will throw shoes at us.

On March 14, Steve Aftergood of Secrecy News writes:

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.

Continue reading PJ Crowley and the Limits of Openness here.
Updated on March 14 with excerpt from Secrecy News.