Obama Gets Pushed Out of His Comfort Zone -- and Pushes Back

The news on Sunday that State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was forced to resign for his frank comments about the treatment of Bradley Manning is sparking lots of justifiable criticism. The question is, why would the administration do something so "ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid"?

Those are, of course, the exact words that Crowley used to describe the treatment of Manning, the Army private suspected of leaking secret government documents to WikiLeaks, now imprisoned at the Marine Brig at Quantico. Although the Pentagon and State Department have themselves acknowledged that the leaks haven't actually endangered national security, they've been treating Manning as if he's a hardened terrorist.

That's prompted some serious questioning from influential bloggers like Marcy Wheeler, who noted last week the eerie parallels between Manning's being forcibly stripped naked every night and some of the treatment of detainees such as Abu Zubaydah at Guantanamo Bay.

Much has been made in the past week about whether Manning's treatment is yet another form of torture being instituted by the Obama administration in U.S. military custody here at home, after denouncing its use by the Bush administration in U.S. prisons abroad.

The point isn't to compare Manning's forced nudity to waterboarding or to murder at Abu Ghraib. But the critical lesson of the Bush rejection of legal provisions on humane treatment is how slippery the slope is from small indignities to great ones, and the particular and peculiar role of sexual humiliation in the path to dehumanization.

I don't know if we'll find any Defense or Justice Department memos laying that out such humiliation as an interrogation tactic, or even if it's being intentionally used that way. Still, you'd think the Obama administration would have seen the comparisons coming, and not fired the State Department spokesman who made his very human, if slightly off-the-cuff, comments on the situation, thereby fanning the flames.

(The administration did, reportedly, give Manning something to wear starting Friday night. And the Pentagon denies that he's being intentionally humiliated, or that he's being held in isolation, although he is alone in a cell for 23-hours a day, where he also eats his meals; he also "exercises" alone in an empty room for one hour a day.)

Crowley's "resignation" prompted, quite predictably, these scathing observations from Glenn Greenwald, citing other influential critics' responses on Twitter, shortly after the news broke on Sunday:

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."

The thing is, Crowley's remarks were completely natural, logical, and human, in light of the public facts. As Wheeler notes, citing Manning's complaint:

The Brig Psychiatrist recommended at least 16 times between August 27 and January 21 that Manning be removed from Prevention of Injury watch. It shows that the day Manning was placed on suicide watch, there was a protest in support of him outside of Quantico. According to Manning, the guards harassed him, demanding he respond to every order with "Aye" rather than "Yes." And except for that day (when he said "Yes" instead of "Aye" and then asked Averhart why that was happening to him), Manning was never deemed to present disciplinary problem.

The Pentagon has even admitted that Commander Averhart declared Manning a "suicide risk" although he lacked the authority to make that call.

Maybe there was some secret, legitimate Defense Department reason to place Bradley Manning on suicide watch, despite all the recommendations to the contrary of brig psychiatrists. Or maybe it was just military bureaucracy and incompetence, where rules frequently trump reason -- something I saw frequently during my trips to Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the reason, Crowley's observation of the apparent absurdity of Manning's treatment were hardly shocking, even if impolitic. If anything, they gave the public some sense that there are human beings somewhere over at the State Department, and that there are people in the Obama administration with an eye out for how Manning's abusive treatment is going to play in the press.

Apparently, however, that could not be tolerated. As Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News writes today, Crowley "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."

Greenwald pointed out in an update to his blog yesterday that during the Bush administration, Democrats pilloried the president for punishing a whole host of administration officials for making public statements that suggested internal dissent. Obama, during his campaign, insisted he'd be different: "I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone," he said.

Or not.

It's time for the Obama administration to come clean on what's going on with Bradley Manning: why he's being treated in this bizarre and seemingly punitive manner, and why U.S. officials won't tolerate even the most obvious and logical questioning of that treatment.