WASHINGTON -- P.J. Crowley is abruptly stepping down as State Department spokesman under pressure from the White House, according to senior officials familiar with the matter, because of controversial comments he made about the Bradley Manning case.
Crowley will step down as early as Sunday afternoon, the officials said, because White House officials are furious about his suggestion that the Obama administration is mistreating Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico, Virginia, under suspicion that he leaked highly classified State Department cables to the website Wikileaks.
Speaking to a small group at MIT last week, Crowley was asked about allegations that Manning is being tortured and kicked up a firestorm by answering that what is being done to Manning by Defense Department officials "is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."
Crowley did add that "nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place" because of his alleged crimes, according to a blog post by BBC reporter Philippa Thomas, who was present at Crowley's talk.
But Crowley has told friends that he is deeply concerned that mistreatment of Manning could undermine the legitimate prosecution of the young private. Crowley has also made clear he has the Obama administration's best interests at heart because he thinks any mistreatment of Manning could be damaging around the world to President Obama, who has tried to end the perception that the U.S. tortures prisoners.
Nevertheless, Crowley's political fate was sealed on Friday when Obama was asked at a White House news conference about his comments regarding Manning.
Obama revealed that he had asked Pentagon officials "whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of (Manning's) confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards."
In a comment that drew howls of protest from liberals, Obama added that Pentagon officials "assure me that they are. 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's treatment has become a flashpoint for liberals, with Amnesty International noting he has been confined to a windowless cell for 23 hours a day, is stripped down to his boxers at night and is not given pillows or blankets.
Manning's lawyer also says the young private recently had to sleep in the nude because defense officials thought there was a suicide threat and decided to take away his boxer shorts.
Crowley is highly respected on foreign policy matters, dating back to his time as National Security Council spokesman under then-President Bill Clinton. He has been the Obama administration's public face on many international stories as the daily briefer at the State Department for Secretary Hillary Clinton.
But he has not had a completely smooth relationship with officials in the Obama White House, and eyebrows were raised several months ago when White House aide Mike Hammer was sent over to the State Department to serve as Crowley's deputy. Hammer is now expected to replace Crowley as the assistant secretary for public affairs.
A little-known factor in Crowley's comments about Manning was revealed Saturday by April Ryan, a White House correspondent for American Urban Radio who covered Crowley in the Clinton White House.
Ryan wrote on Twitter that Crowley "dislikes treatment of prisoners as his father was a Prisoner of War."
While it's true that Crowley's father was imprisoned during World War II, people close him downplay that as a major factor in his comments about Manning, saying the biggest factor is simply that Crowley believes what he said.
Asked to comment on Crowley stepping down, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, referred questions to the State Department.