Updated at 7:05 p.m.
Now here’s an interesting evolution: When the State Department was first pressed on why a tough question from Fox News correspondent James Rosen was missing from a Dec. 2, 2013, press briefing, a spokeswoman attributed the matter to a “glitch.” “There was a glitch in the State Department video,” said State’s Elizabeth Trudeau at a briefing in mid-May.
A different story issued today from the State Department’s podium. Asked about the situation, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs John Kirby said that an internal probe into the matter had revealed that a “specific request was made to excise” the video.
Given the circumstances of the disappearance, that is not a shock.
To review the facts: In February 2013, Rosen posed a prescient question to then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: Was the U.S. government engaged in “secret, bilateral” discussions with Iran? No, came the response from Nuland. By December of that year, rumors surfaced that such Iran-United States talks had indeed been ongoing. So Rosen, in a Dec. 2, 2013, session, asked then-State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki about it:
QUESTION: Is it the policy of the State Department, where the preservation or the secrecy of secret negotiations is concerned, to lie in order to achieve that goal?
MS. PSAKI: James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that. Obviously, we have made clear and laid out a number of details in recent weeks about discussions and about a bilateral channel that fed into the P5+1 negotiations, and we’ve answered questions on it, we’ve confirmed details. We’re happy to continue to do that, but clearly, this was an important component leading up to the agreement that was reached a week ago.
As anyone following the current presidential campaign knows quite well, the Obama administration succeeded in getting a nuclear deal with Iran. It entered into force in January, and in recent months has kicked up a fair bit of dissent. In a piece published in the New York Times Magazine, David Samuels profiled Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes and ripped the administration for laying out an “actively misleading” timeline for the deal:
The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.” While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before [President Hassan] Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After Samuels’s story kicked up a Washington mediastorm, Rosen asked a colleague to check for the video of Psaki answering his question about diplomatic mendacity. The colleague came back with an eerie response: The exchange was gone from the videotape, replaced by a flash of white light. The gap was evident not only on the State Department website, but also on its YouTube page. State Department officials, in a series of briefings, struggled to explain the matter. Trudeau talked about a glitch but also noted that there was no evidence that this glitch had selectively attacked any other embarrassing moments from the press briefings. Kirby later expressed deep concern about the subject.
Today, Kirby brought the goods:
A portion of the State Department’s December 2nd, 2013 press briefing was missing from the video that we posted on our YouTube account and on our website. That missing portion covered a series of questions about U.S negotiations with Iran. When alerted to this, I immediately directed the video to be restored in its entirety with a full and complete copy that exists and had existed since the day of the briefing on the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution system website otherwise known as DIVIDS. I also verified that the full transcript of the briefing which we also post on our website was intact and had been so since the date of the briefing. I asked the office of the legal advisor to look at this including a look at any rules that we had in place. In so doing, they learned that a specific request was made to excise that portion of the briefing. We do not know who made the request to edit the video or why it was made. To my surprise, the Bureau of Public Affairs did not have in place any rules governing this type of action therefore we are taking immediate steps to craft appropriate protocols on this issue as we believe that deliberately removing a portion of the video was not and is not in keeping with the State Department’s commitment to transparency and public accountability. Specifically, we are going to make clear that all video and transcripts from daily press briefings will be immediately and permanently archived in their entirety. In the unlikely event, that narrow compelling circumstances require edits to be made such as the inadvertent release of privacy protected information, they will only be made with the expressed permission of the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs and with an appropriate level of annotation and disclosure. I have communicated this new policy to my staff and it takes effect immediately.
Those are worthy commitments, for the future.
As for the past, more must be known — though it probably won’t. Followup questions to Kirby drilled in on the whodunnit aspect of the video disappearance. Would the department do more investigating to determine precisely how this happened? No, said Kirby, who noted that the individual who received the phone request for video elimination doesn’t remember “anything other than that the caller was passing on the request from somewhere else in the bureau.” Furthermore, said Kirby, “There were no rules in place to govern this sort of action, so while I believe it was an inappropriate step to take, I see little foundation for pressing forward with a formal investigation.” Spoken like a true bureaucrat.
Someone sought to upend government transparency at the State Department. This blog, accordingly, sees “massive foundation for pressing forward with a formal investigation.”
Update: From former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki: “I had no knowledge of nor would I have approved of any form of editing or cutting my briefing transcript on any subject while at the State Department. I believe deeply in providing the press as much information on important issues as possible.”