WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Friday that the Pentagon has assured him that the Army private believed responsible for the largest leak of classified American documents ever is being held under appropriate conditions. He commented after the State Department's top spokesman made waves by describing the military's treatment of the suspect as "ridiculous" and "stupid."
Pfc. Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement for all but an hour every day at a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va., and is stripped naked each night, given a suicide-proof smock to wear to bed.
His lawyer calls the treatment degrading, and Amnesty International says it may violate Manning's human rights.
Obama said he asked the Pentagon whether the suspected WikiLeaks leaker's confinement conditions were appropriate and whether they met basic standards. "They assure me that they are," he told a White House news conference.
The issue reached the president after P.J. Crowley, spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was quotedthat he didn't understand why the military was handling Manning's detention this way, calling it "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid." Yet Crowley qualified his statement by saying that "Manning is in the right place" in military detention.
Crowley did not respond to requests for comment Friday from The Associated Press. However, he did confirm for Foreign Policy magazine that he did make the remarks. He said he was offering his personal opinion and that comments did not reflect official U.S. government policy.
The State Department also said it would have no comment.
Obama declined to elaborate when pressed on whether he disagreed with Crowley's assessment.
Some Manning supporters defended the spokesman.
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War, said Crowley was correct and that the Pentagon had deceived Obama with its assurances. Ellsberg was charged with espionage, but the case was thrown out amid disclosure of extensive government misconduct against Ellsberg.
"If he believes that, he'll believe anything," Ellsberg said by telephone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "If he doesn't know what the actual conditions are, he needs to get a grip on his administration."
Jeff Paterson of Courage to Resist, an Oakland, Calif.-based group raising money for Manning's defense, said he was pleasantly surprised by Crowley's remarks and hopeful they could help change the conditions of Manning's confinement.
"If people know the truth, it is indefensible," Paterson said. "That's what our challenge is to make people aware of what's really happening."
The Defense Department declined to comment.