State Department spokesman John Kirby took nearly a half-hour of questioning Thursday after concluding there was "no evidence" to suggest a deliberate attempt to conceal information from the public after a portion of a 2013 State briefing revealing Obama administration deception about Iran was excised from the official record.
The saga dates back to February 2013, when spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Fox News reporter James Rosen there were no bilateral nation-to-nation talks between Iran and the United States for a potential nuclear deal. In reality, talks had been going on for months. In December 2013, Rosen said to spokeswoman Jen Psaki that the U.S. had actually engaged in such talks, and it had been admitted by Psaki herself, proving Nuland was lying or misleading with her earlier statement.
"James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress," Psaki said, suggesting that keeping such undertakings from the public was acceptable in order to further diplomatic efforts.
This May, Rosen informed another State Department spokeswoman, Elizabeth Trudeau, that his exchange with Psaki had seemingly been excised from the official video of that day’s briefing. She claimed it was a "glitch." Kirby admitted June 1, however, that it had actually been excised due to another government official’s request.
Kirby promised a probe into the controversy and revealed the results Thursday, apologizing that it was not "completely satisfying to everyone," adding "that’s not where the evidence or the memories of so many employees" led the investigation.
Here is Kirby’s full opening statement on the controversy:
JOHN KIRBY: As you know, when this matter came to light, many of us, including Secretary Kerry, had concerns and questions as to how and why this had happened. And so, at the secretary’s request, the Office of the Legal Adviser spent the last several months looking deeper into the issue. All told, they have spoken with more than 30 current and former employees at all level of seniority, and they’ve gone through emails and other documents to see what information might be available.
They’ve now complied their findings and a description of their process into a fact-finding review, which has been provided to the secretary, and we’re also sharing it today with Congress and the Inspector General. Here’s the bottom line. We are confident the video of that press briefing was deliberately edited. The white flash that many of you have noticed yourselves in that portion of the video is evidence enough of human involvement. Indeed, a technician came forward, recalled making the edit and inserting that flash.
What we were not able to determine was why the edit was made in the first place. There’s no evidence to suggest it was made with the intent to conceal information from the public, and while the technician recalls receiving a phone call requesting the edit, there is no evidence to indicate who might have placed that call or why. In fact, throughout this process, we learned additional information that could call into question any suggestion of nefarious activity. In addition to the fact that the full video was always available on DVIDS [Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System] and that the full transcript was always on our website, the video was edited in a choppy manner, which made it obvious that footage was missing.
We also found that the video likely was shortened very early in the process, only minutes after the briefing concluded, and well before the technician who recalled making the edit believes the request was made to make the edit, and in any event, before the technician would have been involved in the video production process. It is possible the white flash was inserted because the video had lost footage due to technical or electrical problems that were affecting our control room servers around that time.
Finally, we have confirmed that even if the video was edited with intent to conceal, there was no policy in place at the time prohibiting such an edit, so upon learning that, I think you know, I immediately put a policy in place to preclude that from ever happening. We will also be consulting now with the National Archives and Record Administration about whether any changes to our disposition schedule should be made to address the press briefing videos. Disposition schedules are rules governing the official record-keeping. The current disposition schedule notes that the written transcript is as permanent record.
Now, I understand that these results may not be completely satisfying to everyone. I think we would all have preferred to arrive at clearer and convincing answers. But that’s not where the evidence or the memories of so many employees about an event which happened more than two and a half years ago have taken us. We have to accept the facts as we have found them, learn from them, and move on. The secretary is confident that the Office of the Legal Adviser took this task seriously, that they examined it thoroughly, and that we have indeed learned valuable lessons as a result.
For my part, I want to thank them as well for their diligence and professionalism. We are, and I think we will be going forward, a better public affairs organization for having worked our way through this.
What followed was a full half-hour of questioning from the press corps about various aspects of Kirby’s statement, beginning with his claim that possibly nothing nefarious had happened because the editing had been done choppily and quickly.
"I said that we aren’t sure whether it was done with intent to conceal or whether it was done as a result of a technical problem. The bottom line is, Brad, it was inconclusive," Kirby said.
One reporter took exception to Kirby’s hypothesis that the "white flash" was possibly inserted to inform the public there was a glitch and that the video was missing.
"If that were the case, don’t you think someone would come and admit that, rather than nobody of the 30 witnesses you interviewed can actually remember what happened?" he asked. "It seems like such a ridiculous explanation, it shocks me that you’re actually providing it here."
"Is that a question, or do you just want to berate me?" Kirby asked.
"John, I just think it’s really strange that you’re saying that," the reporter said. "I think someone would remember if it were a technical glitch."
Kirby said he could not rule out the possibility and repeated there was no evidence it was done as an attempt to "conceal."
Rosen, the reporter at the center of the controversy, pointed out a bit of strangeness in Kirby’s timeline.
"What you are telling us is that some unknown person called this technician to request that an edit that had in fact already been made by some unknown force be made again?" Rosen asked.
"What I’m saying is, James, we do not know," Kirby said.
Another reported chimed in that someone could have done the edit when he or she uploaded the initial entire briefing to the State Department website.
"In arriving at the conclusion that you’re unable to make a conclusion as to whether nefarious intent was involved here, it seems that nobody has taken into that assessment the actual content of the briefing that was actually erased or wound up missing, and so I want to ask you point blank: Doesn’t the content of the missing eight minutes tell us something about the intent?" Rosen asked.
"It just happens to be, in fact, the one time in the history of this administration, where a spokesperson stood at the podium and made statements that many, many people across the ideological spectrum have interpreted as a concession that the State Department will, from time to time, lie to preserve the secrecy of secret negotiations? That coincidence doesn’t strike you as reflective of some intent here?" Rosen added.
Kirby repeated that he wished he could tell Rosen exactly why the edit had been made, but he said the department was "mindful" of the crucial nature of the excised portion of the briefing.
CNN host Jake Tapper devoted an entire segment to the controversy on June 2, saying the State Department had engaged in three distinct "lies" that should "outrage every American."