Leading lawmakers have asked the State Department inspector general to open an inquiry into the agency’s deliberate deletion of press briefing footage about the Iran nuclear deal.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), who heads the National Security Subcommittee, asked State Department Inspector General Steve Linick to launch an inquiry into the department’s Bureau of Public Affairs in a letter Monday afternoon.
"We are puzzled by the apparent degradation of the Bureau’s commitment to transparency and openness," the lawmakers wrote.
The State Department first acknowledged last week that someone in the department intentionally deleted several minutes of video from a press briefing in December 2013. The deleted video showed Jen Psaki, then a spokesperson for the department, admitting the government misled the press about the United States’ secret negotiations with Iran.
Specifically, Psaki, now Obama’s top press adviser, was asked by Fox News reporter James Rosen whether the department’s policy was to "lie" about secret negotiations with Iran in order to preserve their secrecy. He was referring to a 2012 statement by the department that secret negotiations with Iran were not underway, when in reality they were.
"There are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that," Psaki told him.
It recently was discovered that the eight minutes of video footage from the 2013 press briefing, including the exchange about the nuclear negotiations, had been scrubbed from the State Department’s official website and YouTube channel.
While the department initially blamed the deletion on a "glitch," spokesman John Kirby said last week that the editing was made in response to a "deliberate request."
"Deliberately removing a portion of the video was not and is not in keeping with the State Department’s commitment to transparency and public accountability," Kirby said.
Kirby said that the request to delete the footage was made over the phone by an official. Kirby also said the department had not been able to identify the individual who made the request in its own investigation.
"Given the manner in which this deletion reflects on the Bureau of Public Affairs’ commitment to its mission of ‘communicat[ing] timely and accurate information,’ and given the fact that specific questions relating to the aforementioned phone conversation require the special investigative and forensic capabilities with which your office is equipped, the Committee believes that it is appropriate for your office to open an investigation to address many of the unanswered questions with respect to this matter, and to evaluate whether this matter implicates any laws or regulations related to openness and transparency," Chaffetz and DeSantis wrote to the inspector general Monday.
The oversight committee sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry seeking documents to identify those who made and received the request to delete the exchange. The committee also asked for communications related to other requests to delete footage from daily press briefings.
"The Committee will review the information that the Department provides to better understand this incident and to determine whether the Bureau routinely whitewashes the Department’s public portals," the lawmakers wrote.
The deletion of State Department video footage is one of several instances in which the government manipulated the public record about the Iran nuclear deal.
The White House omitted a line from a press briefing with spokesman Josh Earnest on the topic of Iran, ABC News reported over the weekend,
Earnest was asked by Fox News reporter Kevin Corke whether he could "state categorically that no senior official in this administration has ever lied publicly about any aspect of the Iran nuclear deal." The spokesman replied, "No, Kevin." The words were omitted from the official White House transcript. A White House official claimed that the line was inaudible and therefore omitted from the transcript.
Chaffetz and DeSantis penned a separate letter to Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, on Monday seeking information to identify the parties responsible for omitting Earnest’s response.
The lawmakers suggested that the omission from the briefing transcript, as well as the deliberate deletion of State Department footage, underscore statements made by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in a May New York Times Magazine profile. In the profile, Rhodes suggested the White House misled the public to sell the Iran nuclear deal.
The committee asked Rhodes to testify about the nuclear negotiations following publication of the profile, but the White House blocked him from doing so.
"Had he been allowed to testify, perhaps Mr. Rhodes would have revealed the full extent to which the Administration has attempted to manipulate and conceal publicly available information related to the Iran nuclear deal negotiations," the lawmakers wrote McDonough.
"Since the hearing, the White House and the State Department were each found to have scrubbed the public record to remove statements that confirmed Mr. Rhodes’ surprising statements. In both cases, the statement that was expunged from the record related to lying to the public about the Iran nuclear deal."