Obama's Top Aide Takes Blame for U.S. Absence in Paris March

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough / Reuters
January 20, 2015

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's chief of staff on Tuesday took responsibility for not sending a top U.S. official to a Paris unity march after deadly Islamic militant attacks in the French capital earlier this month.

Denis McDonough said in a television interview that it was his decision not to send the president or a high-level American representative to the Jan. 11 march, where the U.S. absence drew criticism.

"We regret we didn't send someone more senior than our ambassador, that rests on me. That's my job," he said, speaking on NBC's "Today" program.

At the march, 44 foreign dignitaries joined French President Francois Hollande in leading more than a million people through Paris in a show of solidarity after Islamist militants killed 17 people in three days of attacks in the city.

The United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane Hartley.

Spokesman Josh Earnest has admitted the White House made a mistake and said that Obama would have liked to attend. But McDonough's admission on Tuesday is the first time someone in the administration has taken the blame for the incident.

Critics, including Republican lawmakers and U.S. media outlets, have blasted the lack of a top American official at the unity march that featured leaders from Britain, Germany and Israel walking arm-in-arm.

U.S. administration officials have said security requirements were a major reason behind not sending Obama or Vice President Joe Biden to Paris, adding that their security needs can be distracting from such events.

McDonough said he especially regretted the decision because the attention it drew "covered up and obfuscated the very good progress that our intelligence agencies, our law enforcement agencies" have made in confronting security threats as well as U.S. cooperation with the French and other European allies.

"That's what we ought to be focused on, but unfortunately the decisions I made obfuscated that effort. We're going to continue make sure we're focused on that and working with our friends to make sure something like that doesn't happen again," he told NBC.

Criticism about the decision has not come from official channels in France, where authorities have welcomed the support of U.S. officials. On Friday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who speaks fluent French, visited Paris to offer condolences.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)