The State Department acknowledged Wednesday that someone in its public affairs bureau made a “deliberate” request that several minutes of tape be cut from the video of a 2013 press briefing in which a reporter asked if the administration had lied about secret talks with Iran.
The embarrassing admission by State Department spokesman John Kirby came three weeks after another spokesperson insisted that a “glitch” had caused the gap, discovered only last month by the reporter whose questioning had mysteriously disappeared.
“This wasn’t a technical glitch, this was a deliberate step to excise the video,” Kirby told reporters.
Kirby said he had not been able to learn who ordered the deletion, which appeared as a jarring, undisguised white flash on the archived video posted on the State Department’s website and in its YouTube video.
“The recipient of the call doesn’t remember anything other than the caller, the individual who called this technician, was passing on a request from someone else within the public affairs bureau,” Kirby said, explaining the faulty memory by adding, “This happened three years ago.”
The curious gap in an old video of a public briefing is not of the same ilk as the famous 18 1/2-minute gap in audio tapes of President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office conversations during the Watergate coverup. The official written transcript of the State Department briefing always carried the full exchange.
But it is likely to further fuel controversy over the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, coming amid allegations that the White House duped the press and misled Congress and foreign policy scholars about the Iran nuclear deal that was implemented in January.
The missing portion of the video came to light in early May when James Rosen of Fox News was preparing a report on White House communications advisor Ben Rhodes, who had boasted to a New York Times Magazine reporter of having created an “echo chamber” to market the Iran nuclear deal and undermine criticisms from opponents. The magazine story said the White House portrayed it as a result of a moderate being elected president of Iran in 2013, when in fact secret talks had been underway since 2011.
Rosen recalled having asked about the secret talks at State Department press briefings twice in 2013.
At the first, in February, he asked then-spokesperson Victoria Nuland if bilateral talks with Iran, at the time still secret, were underway. She replied that “on a government-to-government level, no.”
Then in December, after the secret talks became public, Rosen returned to the issue with Nuland’s successor, Jen Psaki.
“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?” Rosen asked.
Psaki seemed to concur, replying: “James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that.”
But when Rosen called up the video, he was surprised to find that the entire exchange with Psaki, several minutes long, was missing. He asked the State Department about it, and it said that it had found an intact video in a repository and restored it.
“Genuinely, we think it was a glitch,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, director of the press office, in a May 10 briefing.
According to Kirby, who succeeded Psaki last year, the Rosen section was edited out the day Psaki made the statement, after a technician was called by someone within the press office.
“They learned that a specific request was made to excise that portion of that briefing,” he said. “We do not know who made the request to edit the video, or why it was made.”
Psaki, now White House communications director, denied it was her.
“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,” Psaki said in a statement. “I believe deeply in providing the press as much information on important issues as possible.”
Doug Frantz, who was the assistant secretary for public affairs at the time, said he knew nothing of the episode.
“But I can assure that I would never have authorized removing anything from the public record and I would have forbidden anyone who worked for me in public affairs from deleting any material,” he said.
Kirby said there were no rules specifically barring this type of scrubbing. He said new rules would prevent it from happening again.
“My focus is on the future and making sure we have the right rules in place,” he said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Carol Morello