State Department: ‘There’s a Lot of Overblown Rhetoric’ About Video Deletion

June 3, 2016

State Department spokesman Mark Toner described Friday the outcry over the department’s intentional deletion of a portion of a 2013 briefing video showing the Obama administration possibly deceiving about Iran nuclear deal as "overblown."

Speaking at the State Department daily press briefing, Toner was defensive as he took questions from reporters about the video edit that has received great scrutiny from some in the media this week.

"I understand and I appreciate the tough questions that you all are asking us in this room, and we are doing our best [to] answer," Toner said. "But there’s a lot of overblown rhetoric beyond this room about what happened and what transpired."

The State Department admitted Wednesday that someone inside the Bureau of Public Affairs called a video editor on December 2, 2013, to cut several minutes of video out of that day’s press briefing during which then-spokeswoman Jen Psaki effectively admitted that the administration had previously lied about nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The editor, whose identity has not been publicized, proceeded to delete seven or eight minutes of video from both the State Department’s official website and from its YouTube channel. The person who requested the deletion over the phone was reportedly carrying out instructions given by "a source of sufficient credibility and authority" to cause the editor and her boss to not challenge the request.

"The point is not whether a specific rule or regulation was broken, but it’s a public trust issue, a credibility-that-was-broken issue," Associated Press reporter Matt Lee said to Toner on Friday. "It didn’t have to be about [the Iran nuclear deal]. It could have been about anything ... Any deletion or editing of any part of a briefing on any subject should be wrong and not acceptable. Is that correct?"

Toner responded by acknowledging  that an inappropriate action was taken but downplayed its significance.

"One product, a video, was edited. We’ve acknowledged that, and we’ve made steps to correct the policy going forward so that never happens again," Toner said. "But there was always a transcript available of that briefing, and there was always a video available of the full briefing on DVIDS [Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System]."

Fox News correspondent James Rosen was the first to report last month that a large portion of the briefing was deleted for unknown reasons.

Rosen originally asked then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at a press briefing on February 6, 2013, if the administration was engaged in secret talks with the Iranians over its nuclear program. Nuland said no.

Months later at the briefing on December 2, 2013, from which the video was cut, Rosen asked then-spokesperson Jen Psaki if the U.S. and Iran were having secret bilateral talks.

"In that exchange, Psaki effectively admitted that the administration had lied to me because the diplomacy [between the United States and Iran] needed ‘privacy,’" Rosen reported last month.

The Obama administration was engaged in talks with Iran as early as 2011 in Muscat, Oman and began more formal discussions in 2012.

Toner repeated Friday what he said the day before that there is little that can be done now to learn more about what happened because the department has hit a "dead end." If new information emerges, he added, it will be explored.

"We believe we have conducted an inquiry into what happened. We don’t have the answers, ultimately why this was done or why this was requested," Toner said. "But we don’t have any further leads to investigate. So, as I said yesterday, we’re at a bit of a dead end, but we’re going to continue to, as we get information, we’ll pursue that."

The State Department said Wednesday that the staffer who made the deletion from the record did not remember anything about the incident other than the caller was passing on a request from somewhere else in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

"We did interview the person, who by the way came forward and offered their recollection of what happened," Toner said. "But beyond that, the legal office didn’t feel like they needed to pursue this further, did not have the grounds to pursue this further."