State Department spokesman calls treatment of Bradley Manning “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told an audience at MIT on Thursday that he thought the Defense Department's treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Private Bradley Manning was "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."

Blogger Philippa Thomas first reported Crowley's remarks, which she said were part of a lecture on "the benefits of new media as it relates to foreign policy" at an event organized by MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.

"One young man said he wanted to address ‘the elephant in the room'. What did Crowley think, he asked, about Wikileaks? About the United States, in [the questioner's] words, ‘torturing a prisoner in a military brig'? Crowley didn't stop to think. What's being done to Bradley Manning by my colleagues at the Department of Defense ‘is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.' He paused. ‘None the less Bradley Manning is in the right place'. And he went on lengthening his answer, explaining why in Washington's view, ‘there is sometimes a need for secrets... for diplomatic progress to be made'," Thomas wrote.

Reached by The Cable, Crowley confirmed that he did in fact make the remarks.

"What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official USG policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning," Crowley told The Cable.

Apparently unaware that his remarks would spark a controversy, Crowley thanked MIT over Twitter after the speech.

"Grateful to the #MIT #MediaLab for the chance to discuss building global communities to exchange information and views on current events," Crowley tweeted Thursday night. 

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell declined to comment on Crowley's remarks.

Manning, who is being held in a maximum security prison and under isolation 23 hour a day at the Marine Corps' base in Quantico, VA, has been subject to daily disrobing and various other humiliations, which have been widely criticized by human rights groups including Amnesty International.

"PFC Manning is also being held under a Prevention of Injury (POI) assignment, which means that he is subjected to further restrictions," Amnesty wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January. "These include checks by guards every five minutes and a bar on his sleeping during the day. He is required to remain visible at all times, including during night checks.  His POI status has resulted in his being deprived of sheets and a separate pillow, causing uncomfortable sleeping conditions; his discomfort is reportedly exacerbated by the fact that he is required to sleep only in boxer shorts and has suffered chafing of his bare skin from the blankets."

"The harsh conditions imposed on PFC Manning also undermine the principle of the presumption of innocence, which should be taken into account in the treatment of any person under arrest or awaiting trial. We are concerned that the effects of isolation and prolonged cellular confinement - which evidence suggests can cause psychological impairment, including depression, anxiety and loss of concentration - may, further, undermine his ability to assist in his defense and thus his right to a fair trial."

UPDATE: President Obama said Friday afternoon that he had personally asked the Pentagon if the conditions imposed on Manning were really necessary.

"They assured me that they are," Obama said. He wouldn't go into detail but added, "Some of this has to do with Private Manning's safety."

UPDATE II: Another blogger who was at the session reported that Crowley also said that Manning was being "mistreated," and that the crowd applauded.

UPDATE III: Another attendee Ethan Zuckerman posted his own transcript of Crowley's remarks, which includes a full text of Crowley's remarks about manning:

"I spent 26 years in the air force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid, and I don't know why the DoD is doing it. Nevertheless, Manning is in the right place." There are leaks everywhere in Washington - it's a town that can't keep a secret. But the scale is different. It was a colossal failure by the DoD to allow this mass of documents to be transported outside the network. Historically, someone has picked up a file of papers and passed it around - the information exposed is on one country or one subject. But this is a scale we've never seen before. If Julian Assange is right and we're in an era where there are no secrets, do we expect that people will release Google's search engine algorithms? The formula for Coca Cola? Some things are best kept secret. If we're negotiating between the Israelis and the Palestinians, there will be compromises that are hard for each side to sell to their people - there's a need for secrets.

Getty Images

The Cable

Senators demand to know if State Dept. will punish Chinese firms doing business with Iran

The wide-ranging sanctions law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last July calls for the administration to punish companies from third-party countries that are still doing business in Iran. However, U.S. senators still aren't sure whether the administration will follow through with this punishment, especially when it comes to companies in China.

A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators, led by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-KY) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday to demand an update on the State Department's investigation into these companies' ongoing business with the Iranian regime. Their letter was subsequently obtained by The Cable. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg announced that State's investigation began on Sept. 29, which means that law requires the results to arrive by March 29, the senators wrote.

"It appears that Chinese firms in the energy and banking sectors have conducted significant activity in violation of U.S. law," the senators stated. "We cannot afford to create the impression that China will be given free rein to conduct economic activity in Iran when more responsible nations have chosen to follow the course we have asked of them. We are sure you agree."

The State Department's Bob Einhorn is briefing senators on Capitol Hill on this very issue on Friday, a senior GOP Senate aide told The Cable.

In remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Wednesday, Einhorn addressed the issue directly, saying that "we continue to have concerns about the transfer of proliferation-sensitive equipment and materials to Iran by Chinese companies, there is substantial evidence that Beijing has taken a cautious, go-slow approach toward its energy cooperation with Iran."

That explanation won't be enough to satisfy the senators' demands for more active confrontation if Chinese companies are indeed flouting sanctions.

One of the main concerns on Capitol Hill is that as countries pull out from Iran, other countries will take over contracts, thereby nullifying the effect of the sanctions -- a practice known as "backfilling."

For example, the administration and Congress worked hard to convince Japan and South Korea to impose unilateral measures against Iran. However, there's particular concern that China firms will simply come in and take over those contracts.

Kyl and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to Clinton last October on this very issue, noting reports that China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) replaced the Japanese firm Inpex and agreed to invest around $2 billion to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil fields last year.

One week later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that identified 16 companies that sold petroleum products to Iran between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Of those 16, the GAO reported that five have shown no signs of curtailing business with Iran. Three of those companies are based in China, one in Singapore, and one in the UAE.

Other lawmakers who have pressed the administration to enforce Iran sanctions against China include Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA).

"Clearly, Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- is losing patience and expects the administration to act," said Josh Block, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former spokesman for AIPAC. "If not, what kind of message are we sending to these companies in China and Venezuela and Turkey and elsewhere -- and their governments -- that are helping Iran break international isolation?"