State Dept. on Censored Video: Excised Portion Was Not ‘All That Sensitive’

By Patrick Goodenough | June 3, 2016 | 4:11 AM EDT

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

( – Amid continuing fallout over the deliberate censoring of a State Department briefing video, a spokesman on Thursday denied that the edited section had been “all that sensitive” or embarrassing in some way to the department.

During a daily briefing largely dedicated to the controversy, Mark Toner also disputed that the removed portion included words amounting to an admission that the department sometimes lies in the interests of keeping important diplomacy secret.

Asked whether the edited part of the clip “was somehow embarrassing,” Toner said “no,” adding moments later, “we didn’t view the exchange to be all that sensitive.”

The section cut away from the video of the Dec. 2, 2013 briefing included Fox News reporter James Rosen asking then-spokeswoman Jen 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 replied, “I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that.”

Rosen raised the issue with Psaki because, 10 months earlier, he had asked her predecessor Victoria Nuland whether administration officials “have conducted direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran” – to which Nuland said “no.”

Reports subsequently emerged that such talks – laying the groundwork for formal nuclear negotiations – had indeed been underway well before Nuland’s denial on Feb 6. 2013.

As he fielded multiple questions Thursday on the incident, Toner defended both Nuland and Psaki.

In Nuland’s case, he said she had not been aware at the time of her denial that such talks were occurring: “She had no knowledge at that date that we were conducting bilateral talks with Iran.”

As for Psaki, her answer to Rosen’s question about lying (“I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that”) did not constitute an admission of lying.

“She was simply stating that sometimes negotiations – or, rather, diplomacy needs a level of secrecy,” said Toner. “She wasn’t condoning –"

Still, Toner conceded that, “based on what we know,” it was accurate to say the several minutes of video had been deliberately excised because of the content.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby disclosed that an investigation by the department’s Office of the Legal Adviser found that an unknown person in the Bureau of Public Affairs had – via a second party, also unknown – asked a technician to make the edit.

Kirby said the department would not pursue the matter further, since there had been no rules governing such actions at the time. The department had now put rules in place making it clear that amending of video or transcripts should not occur.

Mystery person

Psaki has denied that she was the person who originated the request, and Toner said Thursday she was “a highly regarded professional and colleague, and I take her at her word.”

Asked about another recently departed spokeswoman, Marie Harf, Toner said Harf too had been asked, “and she said she also had no knowledge of this and certainly wouldn’t have condoned it.”

Asked whether he thought the person responsible was honor-bound to come forward and “stop wasting everyone’s time,” Toner said the department would obviously welcome that, adding that “it’s the ethical thing to do.”

Toner was also asked whether anyone who had intentionally asked for the edit to be made, should be working at the department.

“Should people who would deliberately tamper with the historical record be working here?” a reporter asked – making it clear he was referring not to the technician who made the edit but the person who ordered it. “Should they be here in Public Affairs?”

Toner reiterated that while the department believes the editing request was “inappropriate” it did not violate any regulations, since they did not exist at the time.

“But the signal you’re sending is anything that isn’t explicitly prohibited is fine, even if you regard it as wrong or inappropriate,” the reporter pressed.

Toner disputed that the department was sending that signal. He said that Kirby – who as assistant secretary heads the bureau – “has shown his commitment to the integrity of the bureau and to the integrity of the State Department by taking the actions he’s taken and being as transparent as possible in explaining why he’s taken them.”

Over a three-week period Kirby and another spokesperson, Elizabeth Trudeau, have told reporters that the missing portion of video clip from the Dec. 2, 2013 briefing was a technical “glitch.”

But in his announcement Wednesday, Kirby admitted that inquiries had found “that this wasn’t a technical glitch; this was a deliberate request to excise video.”

CNN anchor Jake Tapper described the incident as “an acknowledgement by the Obama administration of having lied to reporters, a scrubbing of the public record and should outrage every American.”

“The Obama administration needs to understand that it’s not acceptable just to leave this where it is,” Tapper said on his show, The Lead. “Just as the public has a right to know the truth, we have a right to know who lied to us and why.”


Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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