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State Dept. spokesman quits over remarks

Decried treatment of leaks suspect

“The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be . . . consistent with our laws and values.” — P.J. Crowley “The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be . . . consistent with our laws and values.” — P.J. Crowley
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / March 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON — State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned yesterday after his disparaging remarks about the Pentagon, made to a small seminar at MIT on the power of blogging, tweeting, and Facebook, appeared in blog postings by members of the audience.

Crowley, a retired colonel who served 26 years in the Air Force, called the Pentagon’s treatment of an Army private accused of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks “ridiculous’’ and “counterproductive.’’ Private First Class Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement in a military jail for 23 hours a day, and is stripped each night and given a suicide-proof smock to wear to bed.

The remarks, which Crowley later described as his personal opinion, were blogged by BBC reporter and Nieman fellow Philippa Thomas. The next day, CBS’s Political Hotsheet blogged about her report. So did Foreign Policy Magazine and Salon. On Friday, President Obama was asked about them at a White House press conference.

Yesterday, the State Department circulated a statement from Crowley announcing his resignation.

In the statement, Crowley took responsibility for his comments, which he said were “intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact’’ of actions taken by the national security agencies on US standing in the world.

“The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values,’’ the statement read.

Some media analysts say the flap over the remarks highlights how public — and publicized — off-the-cuff comments can become in the Internet age.

“Anyone has the ability to record and amplify what is said in any setting,’’ said John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor who specializes in the Internet. “It may well help you, or it may well cost you your job.’’

Palfrey noted that Crowley’s resignation comes on the heels of the resignation of the chief executive of National Public Radio after a fund-raiser for the network was recorded apparently making disparaging remarks about conservatives.

But others say Crowley, a seasoned spokesman with more than 24,000 Twitter followers who frequently bantered with the press from the podium of the State Department briefing room, took a stand of conscience and knew the consequences.

“We are talking about a person who understands the current media environment,’’ said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, who said he heard about the remarks on Twitter within minutes. “If you want to get your message out, the old-fashioned way is to have a quiet discussion with a reporter as an exclusive. The new way is to let it boil up from the tweeters and the bloggers who are going to be in every university audience.’’

Vaidhyanathan said Crowley, who also served as spokesman for President Clinton’s National Security Council, would not have used the same blunt words at the State Department because it would have reflected poorly on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Crowley, a 59-year-old Massachusetts native who graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, did not return a phone call yesterday. But he kept on tweeting, asserting that his successor “will do a great job.’’

Thomas, one of about two dozen attendees at the seminar hosted by MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In her blog post she wrote that she made sure to ask Crowley whether the remarks could be on the record and that she would not have published them if he had refused.

Thomas wrote that Crowley made the remarks during an informal talk about the power of new media in response to a question about Manning’s treatment, which the questioner described as “torture.’’

“Crowley didn’t stop to think,’’ Thomas wrote.

According to an unofficial transcript of the seminar published by Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center, Crowley said: “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.’’

Crowley also said that Manning had damaged US interests by leaking 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, an antisecrecy website.

Charlie deTar, the PhD student at MIT who asked Crowley the question about Manning, said the fact that Crowley had to resign is “frankly kind of depressing.’’

“He seemed to be saying something that he truly believed, and he had some integrity there, but I don’t know if he expected that his statements would cause such an uproar,’’ deTar said in an interview. “When he was asked if the statements were on the record, there was a long pause before he said yes.’’

Crowley’s criticisms have been picked up by civil liberties groups around the country, and have fueled a fierce debate inside the Obama administration over how to respond to WikiLeaks.

“Given the impact of my remarks, for which I take full responsibility, I have submitted my resignation,’’ Crowley said in his statement.

Clinton said in a statement that she accepted his resignation “with regret.’’

Manning, 23, was charged in July with mishandling and leaking classified data.

This month, the Army filed 22 new charges, including aiding the enemy, a crime that can bring the death penalty, although prosecutors have said they will not seek it.

Controversy over Manning’s treatment heated up when his defense counsel, David Coombs, posted a letter Manning wrote to military officials in charge of his detention describing his treatment on his blog last Thursday.

“I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness,’’ he wrote.

A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately return a call.