Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

P. J. Crowley

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Former State Department spokesperson
Washington, D.C.

Asked what he thought about a Pentagon controversy, a message-minder has the temerity to tell the truth.

For Philippa Thomas, a BBC journalist on sabbatical at Harvard, the seminar on new media and foreign policy at neighboring MIT last March was a “purely academic” exercise. But for P. J. Crowley, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of State, it was a career-ending moment, the extinguishment of three decades of government service in a puff of 13 syllables.

Well into the event, a student asked Crowley his opinion about the Pentagon’s decision to hold Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of leaking classified cables to WikiLeaks, in solitary confinement and force him to sleep naked—measures that the student characterized as the U.S. government “torturing a whistle-blower in prison.” Crowley replied that treating Manning that way was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

Brave Thinkers 2011A few minutes later, the BBC’s Thomas asked if Crowley was on the record. After what Thomas later called “an uncomfortable pause,” Crowley said, “Sure.” Thomas posted Crowley’s remark about Manning on her blog. From there, it pinballed through the blogosphere and ended up surfacing the next day in the last place any government spokesperson wants his words to surface: in a gotcha question posed at a presidential news conference. Asked about Crowley’s comment, President Obama repudiated it and said the Pentagon had assured him that Manning’s treatment was “appropriate.” Two days later, Crowley resigned, becoming one of the few State Department chief spokespersons—if not the only one—to pay the ultimate professional price for singing out of tune.

So maybe it was fitting that when I met Crowley in Washington at a Foggy Bottom coffee shop, the sound system was playing the All-American Rejects’ breakup anthem, “Gives You Hell.” Crowley, 60, dressed in the kind of infallible blue suit and crisp tie that pass for camouflage in Washington, was hardly bitter. “I knew I was throwing a dart at the Pentagon,” he told me, “and it just traveled farther than I thought it would.”

Crowley takes pains to clarify that he wasn’t agonizing over Manning’s discomfort. Instead, as he told me, his voice slowing down to stenography speed, the problem with the Pentagon’s rough handling “was that it was undercutting a legitimate and necessary prosecution of a crime under U.S. law.” More broadly, Manning’s treatment was undermining what Crowley calls the “strategic narrative” of the United States—the idea that the U.S. practices the ideals that it preaches.

“I still believe in American exceptionalism,” he says. “But we have to guard the credibility of our narrative.” He did.

Image: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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James Gibney is an Atlantic features editor

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