What the Firing of P.J. Crowley Says About Obama and Open Government

03/15/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I think I've finally put my finger on what exactly bothers me so much about the forced resignation of P.J. Crowley from his position as State Department spokesman on Sunday, after his remark at an academic forum at MIT that the Defense Department's treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning was "ridiculous and counter-productive and stupid."

It isn't just that I am personally disgusted by President Obama's explicit embrace (which came during his Friday press conference) of the Pentagon's inhumane treatment of Manning, who has been sitting in prison for nine months and subjected to a level of personal surveillance and harassment that Amnesty International calls "unnecessarily harsh and punitive" and in "breach [of] the USA's obligations under international standards and treaties." Nor is it the further confirmation that Obama is obsessed with stopping whistle-blowers; his Justice Department has made that quite clear.

No, the protest letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, organized by a group of academics at MIT in response to Crowley's ouster (some of whom were at the session where he spoke his mind about Manning), gets at some of what's bothering me. They write:

In the context of an open and honest discussion in an academic institution, we were eager to hear Mr. Crowley's views and willing to give him our opinions and advice. It is this type of openness to dissenting opinions, frankness of assessments, and honesty of discourse that leads to both the advancement of human knowledge and the healthy function of an open, democratic society. We are discouraged to find such dialogue prompting the resignation of a public official. If public officials are made to fear expressing their truthful opinions, we have laid the groundwork for ineffective, dishonest, and unresponsive governance.[Emphasis added.]

Not only that: As I tweeted last night, "The forced resignation of @pjcrowley makes me wonder why Obama bothers with social media if officials aren't allowed to speak freely."

Same with all the talk about making government more innovative. Remember what the president said when he spoke to a group of students at a town hall in Shanghai in 2009:

I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.

Obama added, "The truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear."

Now, while I understand that as an official spokesman, P.J. Crowley has a different role and needs to express U.S. policy as made by the president, at MIT he made clear he was not speaking for the government. "What I said was my personal opinion," he told Foreign Policy's Cable blog as the news of his remarks at MIT started to spread. "It does not reflect an official USG [U.S. Government] policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning." Nevertheless, by the age-old traditions of Washington, as soon as Obama gave his opinion about Crowley's comments, it was understood that he was on the way out.

Well, if this is how Washington is going to continue to work, I respectfully suggest that all the people inside and outside of government who are promoting the use of social media by government officials, or who are trying to encourage a spirit of innovation and risk-taking, should just throw in the towel. How can you possibly engage in any kind of two-way conversation with the public if at the first sign that the King President is offended by something you said, you will be asked to leave your job? Why isn't there any room for personal opinion, or more minimally, for error?

Sure, the President is the boss and any expression of disagreement from within any administration is interpreted inside Washington as weakness. But if Obama were actually interested in making government more "open, participatory and collaborative," as he memorably declared on the first day of his administration, or more innovative as he's been saying more recently, then by now there would be some room in official Washington for public disagreement and airing of debates from inside the government, and we'd be coming to see such developments as signs of strength, not weakness. Especially when it's about issues that, as Crowley put it in his resignation statement, "highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership."

How can any president expect his or her government to explore policy options and engage the public in discussions of any meaning, if at the first sign of disagreement, the messenger is shot? Of course, this is the wrong question. It hardly seems as if any American president might ever want such things, as long as it is a president in the "strong executive" (aka "imperial") mode that we so take for granted these days. Social media, the two-way nature of the Internet, the transparency movement--all of these are a direct affront to that old way of doing things. So the better way to ask the question is: How can we, citizens of what is supposed to be a democratic republic, fight to ensure that we get a government that is more open, participatory, and innovative than the one we now have?