AP REPORTER MATT LEE: “What’s the divergence between what that message said, and what the message is coming from Washington? Because it seems to me to be exactly the same thing as what the president and what the secretary said over the last couple days.”
STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN VICTORIA NULAND: “I’m not going to sit here and parse the two texts. I think from our perspective, the message was unbalanced, the words were mischosen and they were not clearly comprehensible to all audiences.”
— from the State Department daily briefing, Sept. 13, 2012
The controversy over a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is an interesting example of how words and context matter. State Department officials reportedly tried to dissuade the embassy staffer who wrote it from posting it, but he did so anyway. Nuland’s comment on Thursday is clearly an effort to say that top State Department officials really did not like the statement.
We had noted on Thursday that the Cairo statement had many of the same elements of previous such statements, but in weaker form. Let’s take a closer look at the statement (putting on our hat as a former diplomatic correspondent) and discuss why it appeared weak — and then also examine how it has been repeatedly mischaracterized by the Romney campaign as the tragedy in the Middle East unfolded.
“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.”
— Embassy statement, issued 6 a.m. EST, some six hours before the attack.
What the statement got wrong:
1. Unbalanced: The language on freedom of speech is weak. It is never stated that this is a U.S. right. In fact, freedom of speech is only backhandedly mentioned in the context of people abusing the “universal” right of free speech. Indeed, the statement even seems to suggest that one’s right to free speech is limited when it comes to criticizing a religion.
Compare the language above with this 2006 statement during uproar over the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons: “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.”
2. Mischosen: The reference to the Sept. 11 attacks seems gratuitous and even a little odd. The mention of the anniversary seems to demean it.
3. Not Clearly Comprehensible: The message fell flat and was misinterpreted. In the aftermath of the attack, some clearly thought the statement expressed sympathy for the attackers.
Now let’s look at the tweet that came some 12 hours later:
“This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy”
— Twitter message sent at 6:30 p.m. EST
The tweet condemns the attack on the embassy but then confuses matters by reiterating the earlier statement. (UPDATE: In response to a reader question, we should note that there also was an earlier tweet at about 5:30 p.m. EST condemning the attack on the embassy: “Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we’re the ones actually living through this.”)
With that backdrop, now let’s look at the statements of Mitt Romney and his surrogates in the aftermath.
“I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
— Romney statement, issued 10:24 p.m., Sept. 11, 2012
What Romney got wrong:
1. The embassy statement was not the first response to the attacks, unless you count the tweet. But that tweet actually does condemn the attack, since it referred to “our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”
2. In any case, an embassy statement does not reflect “administration” policy. Administration policy would come from the State Department spokesman, the Secretary of State or the White House. So it was incorrect to refer to the “Obama administration” — as Romney’s foreign policy advisers should have known. Indeed, the first words of the statement are “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo....” That’s pretty low on the statement totem pole — and certainly not the same as the “Obama administration.”
3. The first response by the Obama administration had already been issued by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, shortly after 10 p.m., regarding the attack in Benghazi. Her statement, in other words, was issued before the Romney statement.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today,” Clinton said, confirming the death of a consulate diplomat. “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
“I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values. The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t cleared by Washington. That reflects the mixed signals they're sending to the world.”
— Romney, speaking on the morning of Sept. 12, after the d eath of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others was announced
What Romney got wrong:
1. The administration did not stand by the statement; the embassy did.
2. The embassy did condemn the demonstrators, as did Clinton.
3. Romney suggested the administration took too long to reject the embassy statement. The White House distanced itself from the statement a few hours after it became prominent in evening news shows. Nuland’s briefing on Tuesday might have been an opportunity to more forcefully make the points raised in the embassy statement, but she was not asked about it and did not appear familiar with the situation in Egypt at the time.
“We did have reports just before I came down here that we had a protest outside our Embassy in Cairo,” she said, in response to a question.
(UPDATE: The Romney campaign points to the fact that the embassy statement stood unchallenged for many hours, even after it appeared in news reports at noon. But even those news reports note the statement was issued before the attack.)
“Well, first, the statement was made the night before we knew about the deaths of those four brave Americans in Libya, so it was in relationship not to what happened in Libya but, of course, what happened in Egypt, which was a statement from the U.S. government, the first statement that came out, and it said at its start, ‘We apologize.’ And I think most Americans, Charlie, would look at that and say, ‘Gosh, that's — that's not the appropriate response,’ when your embassy is assaulted, when the American flag is taken down and two Islamic flags were put up over American territory and lives were in jeopardy.”
— Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), appearing on CBS’ “This Morning” as a Romney surrogate, Sept. 13, 2012
What Portman got wrong:
1. Even with all of the reporting on the timeline of the embassy statement, Portman two days later surprisingly again mischaracterized it as “a statement from the U.S. government.”
2. The statement never said: “We apologize.” The statement was intended to calm tempers over an anti-Muslim film, so it is hard to see how it can be regarded as an apology. The tone of the statement might have been off — even in some quarters regarded as apologetic in advance. But that is a matter of opinion, not fact. Portman put words in the statement that simply are not in it.
The Pinocchio Test
Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, the embassy statement could have been written in a stronger and more robust fashion. But there is a big difference between an embassy news release — let alone a tweet — and a fully-vetted statement of policy issued by the U.S. government.
In its rush to jump on the fast-moving story, the Romney campaign badly conflated the two things — and then made itself the focus of attention, instead of the administration’s policies or its handling of the crisis. If the Romney campaign had stayed largely silent for the first couple of days, the focus would have remained on the unrest unfolding in the Middle East and the administration’s policy in the region.
The continued reference to the embassy statement as “an apology” was clearly an effort by the Romney campaign to fit the statement — written by a career staffer deep in the bowels of the State Department — into the campaign’s narrative that President Obama apologizes for America. But it is too much a leap. In any administration, the statements that count are the ones issued by the political appointees.
Earlier in the week, we hesitated about handing out Pinocchios because not all of the facts had been established. But now it is pretty evident that the Romney campaign misstated the facts on Tuesday, on Wednesday — and then again on Thursday, even after the peculiar circumstances of this embassy statement had been made abundantly clear.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
Track each presidential candidate's campaign ads