(CNSNews.com) – As it fends off criticism over the censoring of a briefing video, the State Department is justifying a former spokeswoman’s Feb. 2013 denial that U.S. and Iranian officials had held talks by saying “she had no knowledge at that date that we were conducting bilateral talks with Iran.”
But days before former spokeswoman Victoria Nuland made that denial, Vice President Joe Biden is on the record as saying that were such talks to be held with the Iranians, “we would not make it a secret.”
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 2, 2013, Biden said the administration’s position remained that “we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership.”
“We would not make it a secret that we were doing that,” he said. “We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself.”
Four days later, James Rosen of Fox News asked Nuland at a press briefing if rumors of “direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran” were true.
Nuland replied, “with regard to the kind of thing that you’re talking about, on a government-to-government level – no.”
Yet despite both Nuland’s denial and Biden’s assurance of transparency, preliminary talks between U.S. and Iranian official had quietly begun about seven months earlier – in July 2012, in Oman.
Leading the talks on the U.S. side were Jake Sullivan – in his then capacity as a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but at the time of Biden’s comments the vice president’s national security adviser – and Puneet Talwar, a White House adviser on Iran.
Neither Congress nor key allies were informed about those talks until later. On Dec 11, 2013, Talwar told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing that the first talks took place in summer of 2012.
“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program. We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer,” he said. “We had another meeting in March of this year.”
At that Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked Talwar about Congress having been left out of the loop.
“In the conversations you and your colleagues had in this back channel with Iran, did you brief the chairman or ranking member of this committee about those talks, or did anyone brief them about those talks?”
“I did not,” Talwar said. “I do not know if that occurred. I do not believe so.”
Asked whether any members of Congress were “briefed at all about these talks at any point,” Talwar replied, “Again, I cannot speak for everybody, but from my perspective I do not believe that there were discussions.”
The talks with Iran began when Clinton was secretary of state – as the Democratic presidential candidate has reminded voters while campaigning.
(Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded Clinton on Feb. 1, 2013 – a day before Biden’s comments in Munich, and five days before Nuland’s denial. Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Dec. 2013, Kerry was asked about that denial.
“It turns out your department intentionally misled the American people about these negotiations taking place behind closed doors,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.).
“Honestly, I’d have to go back and check,” Kerry replied. “I became secretary of state, I think, February 1. I’m not sure what was said then or not said exactly, or what the state of play was.”)
‘Diplomacy needs privacy’
The timing of the early talks with Iran is important because they began when the government of the “hard line” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in office. His successor, President Hasan Rouhani, was sworn in in Aug. 2013.
A controversial recent magazine profile of White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes says the administration presented to the American people an intentionally misleading narrative about the nuclear negotiations, linking them to the rise of Rouhani’s “moderate” government in Tehran.
In the New York Times Magazine article, Rhodes boasted of having “created an echo chamber” of experts and compliant journalists to sell the Iran agreement.
Nuland’s Feb. 2013 denial that talks were happening is at the center of the current furor over the censoring of a State Department briefing. The excised portion was not of Nuland’s denial, but of comments by her successor Jen Psaki at a Dec. 2013 briefing, when Rosen challenged her on that earlier denial.
Pointing to Nuland’s comments 10 months earlier, Rosen asked Psaki: “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?”
Psaki answered, “I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that.”
Rosen recently went back to review that exchange with Psaki, and found that it had been excised from the official State Department video of the briefing (although not from the written transcript).
After calling the missing section a technical “glitch,” State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted last week that it had been deliberately removed by a technician on the day the recording was made, at the request of an official at the Bureau of Public Affairs.
The identity of that official remains unknown, according to the department, although Psaki has denied responsibility.
Several members of Congress are putting pressure on the administration to get to the bottom of the incident:
--House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in a letter to Kerry asked that all paperwork relating to the decision to delete the video footage be made available by June 16.
--House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has asked the State Department’s Inspector General to investigate.
--House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said in a statement that if the administration truly cares about transparency it “should investigate who requested this selective editing and why.”
--Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.): “This whole outrageous episode demonstrates how the Iran deal has been sold to Americans through a parade of misleading ‘narratives,’ echo chambers, and outright falsehoods. The administration must start dealing in the truth. One place to start is to identify the official who ordered the manipulation of the video and impose appropriate discipline.”