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An embassy statement, a tweet, and a major misunderstanding

at 06:02 AM ET, 09/13/2012

“A statement by the U.S. Embassy just moments ago….”

— Fox News host Bret Baier, Sept. 11, 2012

Sometimes, timing is everything.

 It is clear now that much of the misunderstanding surrounding the statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo stems from the fact that some commentators thought it had been issued after protesters stormed the embassy compound. Instead, the embassy had released it hours before the protests began, in an apparent effort to cool down emotions over a film that defamed the prophet Muhammad.

 But elements of the statement also were placed in the embassy’s Twitter feed — and it gained new prominence in retweets after the storming of the embassy.

 Take a look at the Fox News video clip, from Tuesday evening, and one can see how such impressions take hold.

First, host Bret Baier shows scenes of protesters storming the embassy and replacing the American flag with a black flag. Then, reading from a piece of paper, he adds, “A statement by the U.S. Embassy just moments ago: ‘The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.’”

 After quoting from the embassy statement, Baier turns to our colleague Charles Krauthammer and asks for his reaction. Krauthammer, apparently under the misimpression the statement had just been released, terms it an embarrassment.

“That's a hostage statement,” Krauthammer said. “That's a mob of al-qaeda sympathizers in Egypt, forcing the United States into making a statement essentially of apology, on 9/11 of all days, for something of which we are not responsible.”

 Small wonder Mitt Romney campaign officials thought they should take advantage of that — and why the White House decided to distance itself from the statement. 

On Wednesday morning, Romney incorrectly reiterated the idea that the statement had been issued after the attacks, apparently hoping to place the incident in the campaign’s narrative that President Obama had been on an “apology tour” — a claim that has earned Romney Four Pinocchios.

 “The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached,” Romney told reporters on Wednesday. “Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach. I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

Romney’s reference to the idea that the statement was “reiterated” appears to be a reference to a tweet — since deleted — that said: “This morning’s condemnation (issued before the protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

Even in this day and age, a tweet seems a pretty thin reed on which to hang a major policy pronouncement. In fact, the so-called reiteration makes clear that the first part of Romney’s comment — that the statement was issued after the breach — is incorrect.

 In context, the embassy statement appears similar to previous statements issued by embassies or spokesmen for the U.S. government in response to provocative actions that might inflame Muslims. The practice dates back at least to the appointment of Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public affairs in the second presidential term of George W. Bush.

The Bush administration had been stunned by the violent anti-American protests in 2005 that erupted after Newsweek erroneously reported that U.S. interrogators had tried to rattle an al-Qaeda suspect by flushing a Koran down a toilet. Hughes pushed for a much more proactive communications effort, in an effort to get ahead of such reports.

Following is the full Cairo embassy statement, followed by two other examples that we found of similar statements.  These statements follow a similar pattern, which we will highlight in the text:

1. Condemn the potential offending action. 

2. Emphasize that the United States believes in religious freedom and religious tolerance — as well as freedom of expression or freedom of speech.

3. Make a reference to American democracy, or at least the U.S. Constitution.

Of the examples we found, the 2012 Cairo embassy statement is perhaps the weakest, though perhaps that is because it is shortest. It refers to “abuse” of the “universal right of free speech” without emphasizing that Americans have an absolute right to freedom of speech — no matter how distasteful.

 The longest and most thorough statement is by the State Department spokesman in 2006. But a statement made at the daily briefing carries the full weight of the U.S. government, whereas the embassy statement is just that — a statement by the embassy, drafted in house, with little or no coordination with Washington (let alone senior State Department officials who are political appointees of the current administration).

Indeed, an interesting inside account published by Foreign Policy magazine says the statement and tweets were the work of communications staffer Larry Schwartz. The article says he cleared the statement with only one person at the embassy — not the ambassador, who was in Washington — and he posted it even though Washington, once it got wind of it, told him not to post it without changes. When The Fact Checker was diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, he knew and respected Schwartz as a blunt professional who was not afraid of ruffling a few feathers every so often.

Without the tragic events of this week, the Cairo statement likely would have passed unnoticed — along with the other embassy statements on Facebook contests, the ambassador’s visits to polling stations and so forth.

U.S. Embassy, Cairo, 2012:

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

— September 11, 2012

U.S. Embassy, Islamabad, 2010

U.S. Embassy Condemns Florida Church Plans to Burn Copies of the Koran

Islamabad — The U.S. Embassy condemns plans by a Florida church to burn hundreds of copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11.

“We condemn acts that are disrespectful, intolerant and divisive," said Charge d'Affaires Stephen C. Engelken. "We are deeply concerned about all deliberate attempts to offend members of any religious or ethnic group.”

“We believe firmly in freedom of religion and freedom of expression; they are universal rights, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We reaffirm our position that the deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act,” said Engelken.

Officials in Gainesville, Florida, where the church is located, denied the church's permit for the burning under the local fire ordinance and have said they will take further steps if the Church goes forward with its plans.

Public condemnation of this event has come from a variety of organizations including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Anti-Defamation League.

As she hosted an Iftar meal at the State Department in Washington Tuesday evening, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the condemnation of the planned act, saying “I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths, from evangelical Christians to Jewish rabbis, as well as secular U.S. leaders and opinion-makers. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. Many of you know that in 1790, George Washington wrote to a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that this country will give ‘to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’”

— September 8, 2010

State Department spokesman, 2006

Daily press briefing,

QUESTION: Yes? Can you say anything about a U.S. response or a U.S. reaction to this uproar in Europe over the Prophet Muhammad pictures? Do you have any reaction to it? Are you concerned that the violence is going to spread and make everything just —

MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen any — first of all, this is matter of fact. I haven't seen it. I have seen a lot of protests. I've seen a great deal of distress expressed by Muslims across the globe. The Muslims around the world have expressed the fact that they are outraged and that they take great offense at the images that were printed in the Danish newspaper, as well as in other newspapers around the world.

Our response is to say that while we certainly don't agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy — democracies around the world — and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.

We believe, for example in our country, that people from different religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds add to our strength as a country. And it is important to recognize and appreciate those differences. And it is also important to protect the rights of individuals and the media to express a point of view concerning various subjects. So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may not agree with those points of view, we may condemn those points of view but we respect and emphasize the importance that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.

For example — and on the particular cartoon that was published — I know the Prime Minister of Denmark has talked about his, I know that the newspaper that originally printed it has apologized, so they have addressed this particular issue. So we would urge all parties to exercise the maximum degree of understanding, the maximum degree of tolerance when they talk about this issue. And we would urge dialogue, not violence. And that also those that might take offense at these images that have been published, when they see similar views or images that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic, that they speak out with equal vigor against those images.

— Feb. 3. 2006

The Bottom Line

We have looked in vain for an “apology” in the Cairo statement, as well as significant differences between that statement and earlier ones. One could criticize the Cairo statement for lacking a meticulous defense of freedom of speech. But that is not the same thing as an apology — especially since the embassy clearly issued the statement long before the protests began.

This all started because some people got the timeline wrong. In the fog of war and protest, it often helps to get the facts straight before you act — or speak.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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