What the State Dept. cut from Iran deal briefing video

The State Department has come under fire for deleting part of a video of a Dec. 2, 2013, press briefing that dealt with the controversial Iran nuclear deal and the information the administration gave the public while the deal was in the works. 

The department's press secretary, John Kirby, admitted Wednesday that an official within its public affairs department had ordered a video editor to make the cut but said he didn't know who made the call.

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Roughly eight minutes of an exchange between then-State Department press secretary Jen Psaki and Fox News reporter James Rosen was removed, with a white flash added as a transition, as seen in the edited video aired by Fox News. 

During the December 2013 briefing, Rosen asked Psaki whether her predecessor, Victoria Nuland, lied when she said in February 2013 that secret bilateral talks with Iran had not yet started. Reports at the time said such discussions began as early as 2011.

Psaki would not confirm when the talks started but responded to Rosen, "I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress." 

Critics of the administration say her statement is an admission that Nuland lied about the timing of the talks, which U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged began as early as 2012.

Last summer, the U.S. and other world powers completed the deal with Iran, which has lifted sanctions in exchange for the country curbing its ability to create nuclear weapons.

According to a transcript of the press briefing and the altered video aired by Fox News, this portion of the Dec. 2, 2013, briefing was deleted:  

 

PSAKI: I can take a closer look, once we see the transcript of the interview, and see if we have more comments on -- on Foreign Minister Sharif's comments.

QUESTION: You're saying (ph) your team does not watch Al Jazeera? 

PSAKI: Well, that is not true. We do. However, I believe there's only been a very short clip that has played of this interview, that I'm sure will get lots of attention, once it all plays.

QUESTION: Beyond the interview, I mean, he's really reaching out. He visited Kuwait; he's reaching out to the other Gulf countries; he wants to visit Saudi Arabia. I mean, there is an effort underway to alleviate their fears and actually encourage them toward participating in Geneva II to make it a success.

You must have some sort of a reading of this effort. 

PSAKI: I don't have any particular reading of it for you, Saeed (ph). Our position, I think has been pretty clear on whether or not they attend the Geneva conference.

QUESTION: (inaudible) logistic thing.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: On -- on the December 20th meeting, that's a Wendy Sherman and that is the same...

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: It is that level (inaudible), yes.

QUESTION: Is that new or was that announced last week or something that I...

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: I believe we talked abut it last week, as being the next meeting.

(CROSSTALK) 

QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran, please?

PSAKI: Sure, let's stay on Iran, and then we can go to China.

QUESTION: On the 6th of February, in this room, I had a very brief exchange with your predecessor, Victoria Nuland, about Iran.

And, with your indulgence, I will read it in its entirety for the purpose of the record and so you can respond to it.

"Rosen: 'There have been reports that intermittently and outside of the formal P-5-plus-1 mechanisms the Obama administration or members of it have conducted direct secret bilateral talks with Iran. Is that true or false?'

"Nuland: 'We have made clear, as the vice president did at Munich, that in the context of a larger P-5-plus-1 framework, we would be prepared to talk to Iran bilaterally. But with regard to the kind of thing that you're talking about, on the government-to-government level, no.'" 

That's the entirety of the exchange.

As we now know, senior State Department officials had, in fact, been conducting direct, secret bilateral talks with senior officials of the Iranian government in Oman, perhaps dating back to 2011 by that point.

So the question today is a simple one: When the briefer was asked about those talks, and flatly denied them from the podium, that was untrue. Correct?

PSAKI: I mean, James, I -- I -- you're talking about a February briefing, so 10 months ago. I don't think we've outlined or confirmed contacts or specifics beyond a March meeting. I'm not going to confirm others beyond that at this point. 

So I don't know that I have any more...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Do you stand by the accuracy of what Ms. Nuland told me, that there had been no government-to-government contacts, no secret direct bilateral talks with Iran as of the date of that briefing, February 6th? Do you stand by the accuracy of that?

PSAKI: James, I have no new information for you today on the timing of when there were any discussions with any Iranian officials.

QUESTION: Let me try it one last way.

PSAKI: OK.

QUESTION: And I appreciate your indulgence.

PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Is it the policy of the State Department, where the preservation of the secrecy of secret negotiations is concerned, to lie in order to achieve that goal?

PSAKI: James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This a good example of that. Obviously, we have made clear and laid out a number of details in recent weeks about discussions and about bilateral channels that set into the P-5-plus-1 negotiations. 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.

QUESTION: Since you standing at that podium last week did confirm that there were such talks at least as far back as March of this year, I don't see what would prohibit you -- what would prohibit you from addressing directly this question. Were there secret direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iranian officials in 2011? 

PSAKI: I don't have anything more for you today. We've long had ways to speak with the Iranians through a range of channels, some of which you talked -- you mentioned. But I don't have any other specifics for you today.

QUESTION: The Los Angeles Times and Politico have reported that those talks were held as far back as 2011. Were those reports inaccurate?

PSAKI: I'm not sure which reports you're talking about. Are you talking about visits that the secretary and others made to Oman? Or are you talking about other reports?

QUESTION: I'm talking about U.S. officials meeting directly and secretly with Iranian officials in Oman as far back as 2011. The Los Angeles Times and Politico have reported those meetings. Were those reports inaccurate?

PSAKI: I have nothing more for you on it, James, today.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: One more on Iran?

PSAKI: On Iran? Let's just finish Iran and then we can go to China. Go ahead. 

QUESTION: One more on Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif said, directly contradicting the Obama administration's contention that sanctions worked. He told our interviewer that when the sanctions were first imposed, Iran had 200 working centrifuges. Today, they have more than 19,000. What is this building's reaction to his comment that sanctions did not work and did not bring Iran to the negotiating table?

PSAKI: Well, again, I would like to look more closely at the context of the comments. But just as a reminder, President Rouhani and others have talked about how the impact -- how growing the economy and putting an end -- doing -- bringing an end to the sanctions is something that was a priority for them in order to help the economy and the Iranian people.

There's no question if you looked just at the facts of the impact of oil revenues, the impact on their economic growth writ large, that there was a huge impact -- that the sanctions had an enormous impact. And that that was a driving factor in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table.

In terms of progress made on their efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, whether through centrifuges or -- or, you know, at their various facilities, that to me sounds like a separate question.

Obviously, there was concerns about -- about steps they were taking and progress they were making, which was why it was so important to come to an acceptable agreement that would halt and roll back the progress of their program. 

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that though, you know, Secretary Kerry when he did his round robin of interviews after the announcement of the deal in Geneva, more than once stated that when Iran had reached out to the Bush-Cheney administration in 2003, Iran was only in possession of 164 centrifuges. Now, he would go on to say, they have 19,000 and this, therefore, represents the best possible deal that could be secured.

Isn't it a fact that since the Obama-Biden administration took office, 70 percent of Iran's centrifuges have been installed?

PSAKI: Well, I'd have to look at the statistics, James, but we have not questioned the fact that Iran has made progress on enrichment and on developing a nuclear weapon.

We have not questioned that. That's one of the reasons why we stepped up sanctions over the past couple of years. The president, Secretary Kerry were big proponents of that. Why -- we have worked with the international community to do just that, to put that necessary pressure in place.

The point I was trying to make to Roz is that, it -- what she's asking sounds to me like two separate questions. So, that was...

QUESTION: Assuming the separate one -- part, that she carved out, and that is to say -- and if this is untrue, I'd be grateful to be disabused of the notion -- but the great bulk of Iran's progress in the development of its enrichment program has taken place under President Obama's watch, correct?

PSAKI: I'd have to check on the specific numbers.

QUESTION: You're not prepared to dispute that statement as...

PSAKI: Well, James I think what we're focused on at this point is the fact that we're now at a point where we are halting and rolling back the progress of their program, and we're working toward a comprehensive agreement to bring an end to it.

I can't speculate for you what would happen without -- what would have happened without sanctions. I would venture to guess...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) about sanctions. 

PSAKI: But -- but they were being paired together. So that's why I'm bringing it into the conversation.