State Department's P J Crowley resigns over Bradley Manning WikiLeaks comments
The public face of America's foreign policy has been forced out of his job after picking a fight with the White House over the administration's treatment of Private Bradley Manning, the young US soldier suspected of handing a treasure trove of classified military and diplomatic cables to the file-sharing website WikiLeaks.
P J Crowley, a veteran civil servant who worked as the chief spokesman for Hillary Clinton's State Department, stepped down last night amid persistent controversy over a speech last week in which he described the harsh handling of Manning as "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid".
His departure lays bare the growing debate in Washington over how best to treat Pte Manning, who is being kept in solitary confinement at a marine barracks in Virginia. He is confined to a 6ft- by-12ft cell for 23 hours a day, is never allowed outdoors, and is forced to strip naked each night.
Speaking to a small audience at an academic seminar in Boston on Thursday, Mr Crowley was asked what he thought of "torturing a prisoner in a military brig". While he stressed that Pte Manning was "in the right place", Mr Crowley added the over-zealous nature of his incarceration could eventually undermine a prosecution.
A BBC journalist attending the event passed the quotes on to her employers after Mr Crowley confirmed they were on the record, forcing an embarrassed President Obama to use his weekly press conference on Friday to stress that he was confident that the nature of the Private's confinement was "appropriate and meeting our basic standards".
Behind the scenes, however, a row continued to fester over the weekend. Adding spice was the appearance of a disagreement on the issue between Mr Obama and his former presidential rival Hillary Clinton, who is believed to take the view that any infringement of Pte Manning's civil liberties will hurt America's image overseas. Mr Manning and his lawyers have meanwhile very publicly argued that, since he poses only a minimum escape risk,his high-security detention has been designed to punish him for the alleged transgressions before he has been put on trial.
Against that backdrop, Mr Crowley's departure was perhaps inevitable. News of it was broken by CNN, which reported that he had "abruptly resigned" after "pressure from White House officials because of controversial comments".
The news organisation claimed that the President's office was "furious" about the bad publicity the affair had brought them. Mr Crowley, a foreign policy expert, first gained public attention as spokesman for the National Security Council under Bill Clinton's presidency. Since moving to the State Department in 2009, Mr Crowley has taken a very public approach to his task of outlining the administration's position on foreign policy issues, using Twitter prolifically to issue sometimes strongly-worded pronouncements on US policy several times a day. However, he has not tweeted since Friday, when he commented on the Japanese earthquake.
Even before this week's events, Washington insiders have in recent months wondered if Mr Crowley's days were numbered, since some of his comments have ruffled feathers at the White House and among diplomats. Before Christmas, eyebrows were raised when an Obama aide, Mike Hammer, was parachuted into the State Department to serve as Mr Crowley's deputy. Mr Hammer is now expected to take the top job.