Lawsuit Aims to Get to the Bottom of State Department’s ‘Shameful Cover-Up’ of Press Briefing

By Patrick Goodenough | June 29, 2016 | 4:27 AM EDT

Former State Department spokespeople Victoria Nuland, Jen Psaki and Marie Harf, and current spokesman John Kirby. (Photos/Screengrabs: State Dep’t)

(CNSNews.com) – The State Department may have hoped a furor over a censored press briefing video was over, but now it faces a federal lawsuit brought by a group determined to get to the bottom of what it calls a “shameful cover-up” relating to the Iran nuclear deal.

The American Center for Law and Justice on Tuesday filed a lawsuit, demanding that the State Department release all records that will show who was responsible for asking a technician to delete a portion of the official video clip of a Dec. 2013 departmental daily briefing.

“We demand the right to know who was involved in that cover-up,” said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow. “Today, we are taking the Obama administration to court so the American people can unearth the truth behind President Obama’s Iranian deal.”

The deleted portion of the video clip included remarks in which then-spokeswoman Jen Psaki that could be interpreted as an admission that the administration had not been truthful about how early it began talks with Iranian officials that paved the way for formal nuclear negotiations.

After initially describing the missing section of tape a technical “glitch,” current spokesman John Kirby acknowledged in early June that it had been deliberately deleted by a technician on the day the recording was made, at the request of an official at the department’s Bureau of Public Affairs.

The department has said it was unable to establish the identity of the official responsible. Psaki – who now works as director of communications at the White House – has said it was not her, as has her colleague at the time, Marie Harf.

The ACLJ earlier filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain all pertinent records, but said Tuesday it was now lodging a lawsuit because the administration had missed a deadline to respond to the FOIA request.

Under U.S. law, federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days – which in this case would have been June 10. The ACLJ said the State Department had not responded – either by advising that it would comply, asking for more time, or claiming a statutory exemption.

One of nine FOIA exemptions relates to classified information for foreign policy or national defense. Others touch on matters like personnel and medical files, and trade secrets.

The ACLJ said it crafted its FOIA request carefully to avoid stepping into exemption territory.

“For example, the ACLJ did not seek sensitive records of the actual Iran negotiation, which would undoubtedly be withheld under the FOIA ‘foreign affairs’ exemption,” it said.

“Instead, the ACLJ only requested records addressing the cover-up – the decision to delete portions of the video and the decision to call it a ‘glitch.’ FOIA provides no exemption for cover-ups.”

‘Diplomacy needs privacy’

The controversy over the censored video feeds into suspicions held by critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – about the way it was sold to the American people.

A New York Times Magazine article last month charged that the administration presented a deliberately misleading narrative about the nuclear negotiations, justifying them on the basis of the rise of President Hasan Rouhani’s “moderate” government in Tehran.

In the article, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes boasted at having “created an echo chamber” of experts and journalists, to sell the JCPOA.

In fact, early talks began well before Rouhani was elected in mid-2013 – in Oman in the summer of 2012, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still had a year to go in office, and about six months before Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state ended.

In February 2013, Fox News reporter James Rosen asked then-State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland whether administration officials “have conducted direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran.” Nuland replied, “no.”

Ten months later, Rosen asked Nuland’s successor, Psaki, about that earlier denial.

“Is it the policy of the State Department, where the preservation or the secrecy of secret negotiations is concerned, to lie in order to achieve that goal?” Rosen asked.

Psaki answered, “I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that.”

It was that exchange, between Psaki and Rosen, that was excised from the transcript video later that same day – at the request, Kirby says, of a Bureau of Public Affairs official whose identity is not known.

Kirby also said the department had no plans to pursue an investigation further, but that he had put in place procedures to ensure such an incident does not happen again.

On June 6, White House press secretary Josh Earnest did not answer directly when asked, several times, whether any senior administration official had ever lied publicly about the JCPOA.

Instead of saying yes or no, Earnest chose to answer in what he called “the affirmative,” saying that the administration had made a “truthful” case about the deal – which he predicted would be “an important part of this president’s legacy.”

An ACLJ initiative calling on the administration to tell “the truth” about Iran deal/censored video affair has garnered almost 42,000 signatures.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow