WASHINGTON — Public criticism by a State Department spokesman about the treatment of an Army private accused of giving classified U.S. material to WikiLeaks has sparked speculation of a rift within the U.S. government over the handling of the prisoner.
P.J. Crowley told a forum in Cambridge, Mass., on Thursday that Pvt. Bradley Manning's treatment at the hands of the Defense Department in a jail at the Marine base in Quantico, Va., "is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid."
According to Manning's lawyers, he is kept in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement and has been forced to sleep and stand at attention while naked. He is reportedly on suicide watch.
President Barack Obama was asked Friday, during a news conference, about Crowley's comments.
"I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are," Obama said. "I can't go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning's safety as well."
Manning, 23, who served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, has been charged on 34 counts, including illegally obtaining from a military database an estimated 250,000 secret U.S. government cables and 380,000 records related to the Iraq war.
He also has been charged with aiding the enemy, a capital offense, though prosecutors have said they do not plan to seek the death penalty.
WikiLeaks, an activist online site, began posting the material last year, though U.S. investigators have been unable to establish a direct tie between the group and Manning.
Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, participated in a student forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday. Crowley was asked his thoughts on the "torturing" of Manning.
He didn't respond to the allegation, but went on to describe Manning's treatment and said, "I don't know why DoD is doing it." Crowley did not defend Manning, however, adding that "Bradley Manning is in the right place" and that "there is a need for secrets" in Washington.
Crowley's remarks were first reported by BBC News.
Crowley has since confirmed making the comments, but on Friday told Foreign Policy magazine that they were his own "personal opinion," not government policy. The State Department has not commented on his remarks.
In December, the United Nations announced it was launching a probe into Manning's treatment.
The State Department and the Pentagon have been fierce critics of WikiLeaks. Crowley himself labeled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange an "anarchist" in December.