Globe Editorial

State Department spokesman loses job for speaking the truth

March 15, 2011

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the right to fire her assistant secretary for public affairs, P.J. Crowley, for some undiplomatic straight talk. Crowley told an audience at MIT last week that the unusually harsh pretrial confinement of Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst who is suspected of passing 250,000 diplomatic cables to the website WikiLeaks, is “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.’’ There is a crucial difference, however, between having that right and being right.

What Crowley said about Manning’s treatment at the brig in Quantico, Va., was justified on two counts — as a matter of human rights and as a hard-headed warning about the damage done to America’s reputation for tolerance and openness, which has been a crucial beacon for the world.

Manning is accused of a serious crime, one that caused real damage to his country’s standing in the world. But as prosecutors seek to persuade Manning to provide evidence against Julian Assange, the mastermind of WikiLeaks, the Amy is exposing him to treatment that conjures up visions of abusive prisoner-of-war camps and should never be sanctioned for someone on pretrial detainment.

Two months ago, the human rights group Amnesty International wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates to warn that the Army intelligence analyst’s treatment appears “to breach the USA’s obligation under international standards and treaties.’’ The relevant requirement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that the US ratified in 1992 is a guarantee that prisoners be accorded basic human dignity.

Manning is confined in a 6- by 12-foot cell for at least 23 hours a day, deprived of contact with other inmates, shackled when meeting with his lawyer, observed every five minutes at night, and told to remain visible, thus making it hard to go to sleep and stay asleep. Recently, Manning was forced to stand nude before his cell door for morning inspection. The ostensible reason for this regimen is that Manning is a risk to himself, despite the reported judgment of a military psychiatrist that there is no medical basis for considering him suicidal. The Amnesty letter also noted, justly, that the punitive conditions imposed on Manning “undermine the principle of the presumption of innocence.’’

At a time when the Obama administration is straining to calibrate its response to the democracy movements billowing across the Arab world, the United States should not be treating Manning in a manner that in any way resembles how Mideast autocrats handle their countries’ dissidents.

Crowley, in his resignation letter, took responsibility for the remarks that cost him his post. And while acknowledging that Manning’s alleged offense of leaking classified information is a serious crime, Crowley hammered home his original point about the “broader, even strategic impact on our global standing’’ of actions — like the abusive treatment of Manning — that make the US appear grossly hypocritical.

Crowley, a 26-year Air Force veteran, may have violated the spokesman’s duty to follow the official script, but in doing so he was speaking a truth that his superiors ought to heed.