We have covered all kinds of Streisand Effect type stories here at Techdirt, but I don't recall a whole ton of them featuring the actual United States federal government. Typically, those stories mostly deal with individuals and companies trying to keep something hidden and instead mega-upping the interest in that very would-be-hidden thing. This is different, as this story consists of the State Department apparently attempting to disappear some tough questioning by a Fox News employee. And, man, is it stupid.
Some background is in order. Back in 2013, the State Department held regular media briefings on the Iran nuclear deal. During one of those briefings, Fox News' James Rosen pressed then State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland as to whether the negotiations had begun in 2013, as the administration indicated, or in 2011, as some reports were indicating. The reason why the question is important is because the Obama administration has always portrayed this deal as having coincided with the ouster of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, considered a hardliner, and the introduction of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, considered a moderate. If it was found that Obama's State Department was actually negotiating with the hardliner, well, that's a story of public interest. Nuland denied to the press that any such previous negotiations had taken place.
Fast forward to later that same year, where we have another press briefing conducted by new spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Rosen, having continued to hear reports of previous negotiations, recited the previous exchange with Nuland for Psaki and then posed the same question to her. She didn't answer directly, prompting Rosen to then ask if it is the State Department's view that lying to the press to facilitate this kind of foreign affairs negotiation was kosher. Psaki's response was illuminating.
James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that. Obviously, we have made clear and laid out a number of details in recent weeks about discussions and about a bilateral channel that fed into the P5+1 negotiations, and we’ve answered questions on it, we’ve confirmed details. We’re happy to continue to do that, but clearly, this was an important component leading up to the agreement that was reached a week ago.
That's as close as it gets to a State Deparment official admitting that, yes, they're happy to lie to the press when it suits them. Now, fast forward again to the present, with a recent profile of Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication, by the New York Times' David Samuels. In his piece, Samuels again accuses the Obama administration of lying to the press and the public about when these negotiations took place, stirring all this up once more. That prompted Rosen and Fox News to go back to the State Department video archives to review the briefing Psaki had conducted.
Rosen's questions and Psaki's answers had been deleted from the video recording. To blame? Well, first the State Department said it was a glitch in the video, one which apparently only removed the exact recording time of a tough question and answer exchange. But shortly after, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs John Kirby admitted the footage was removed deliberately.
A portion of the State Department’s December 2nd, 2013 press briefing was missing from the video that we posted on our YouTube account and on our website. That missing portion covered a series of questions about U.S negotiations with Iran. When alerted to this, I immediately directed the video to be restored in its entirety with a full and complete copy that exists and had existed since the day of the briefing on the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution system website otherwise known as DIVIDS. I also verified that the full transcript of the briefing which we also post on our website was intact and had been so since the date of the briefing. I asked the office of the legal advisor to look at this including a look at any rules that we had in place. In so doing, they learned that a specific request was made to excise that portion of the briefing. We do not know who made the request to edit the video or why it was made. To my surprise, the Bureau of Public Affairs did not have in place any rules governing this type of action therefore we are taking immediate steps to craft appropriate protocols on this issue as we believe that 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. Specifically, we are going to make clear that all video and transcripts from daily press briefings will be immediately and permanently archived in their entirety. In the unlikely event, that narrow compelling circumstances require edits to be made such as the inadvertent release of privacy protected information, they will only be made with the expressed permission of the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs and with an appropriate level of annotation and disclosure. I have communicated this new policy to my staff and it takes effect immediately.
Laudible aims, but the damage has been done. In predictable fashion, the original exchange that was supposed to be buried is now not only unearthed but is making headlines once again, three years after it originally occurred. All because someone in the State Department wanted it covered up. And that someone will likely not be found, as the State Department appears to be uninterested in investigating this any further.
It's exactly the wrong thing to do. First, nothing is gained by the attempted coverup. In fact, the story is more widely known now than it would have been otherwise. And now we can add a dash of intrigue to this mix, by adding the story of the video edit on top of it. For a subsection of the population, this will confirm their paranoia and mistrust. And, looking at this story, it's tough to blame them.
But, thanks to the Streisand Effect, at least we know that the State Department is perfectly happy to lie to the press to achieve its goals, and then attempt to cover it up. I wonder if there are any current politicians running for office that this might reflect poorly on?