White House seeks distance from ISIS transcript edit

White House seeks distance from ISIS transcript edit
© Greg Nash

The White House on Tuesday sought to distance itself from a controversy swirling around the Justice Department’s decision to remove references to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the transcript of a 911 call placed by Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. 

After coming under withering criticism, the law enforcement agency reversed course on Monday and released the complete text of the call — a decision the White House said was made without their input.  

“The decision to release the unredacted version of the transcript that was released yesterday was made independently and entirely by the Department of Justice,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. 

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Earnest said that he would not be “doing any backseat driving" when asked if federal law enforcement officials erred by initially redacting references to ISIS and the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

“They’re obviously making decisions that they believe are in the best interests of the investigation and of the broader community,” he said. “And I’ll leave it to the investigators who make those decisions to comment on it.”  

The edited transcript unleashed a torrent of criticism from Republican lawmakers, who accused the Obama administration of downplaying the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorist organizations. 

After the Justice Department backtracked, it looked like the edit provoked an unnecessary fight. Even Democrats questioned the department’s initial decision. 

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns Trump administration rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards MORE (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, called it a “human error.” 

"I'm glad at the end of the day they went back to the original script,” Carper told The Hill in an interview. “They should've done that in the first place."

The Justice Department and FBI said Monday the redactions were intended to prevent ISIS from using the shooting for propaganda purposes.  

But Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.) on Monday called that reasoning “preposterous.”

“The attempt to selectively edit the record reflects a broader, more serious problem: this administration’s continued effort to downplay and distract from the threat of radical Islamist extremism,” Ryan said in a statement. “To defeat terrorism we have to be clear-eyed about whom we’re fighting.” 

The agencies acknowledged in a joint statement that the edits “have caused an unnecessary distraction” from the investigation. 

“As much of this information had been previously reported, we have re-issued the complete transcript to include these references in order to provide the highest level of transparency possible under the circumstances,” the statement said. 

The decision appeared to be an effort to pour cold water on the debate over whether President Obama is unwilling or unable to recognize the threat posed by terrorists because of his refusal to use the term “radical Islam.” 

Obama said last week in a fiery speech that he fully understands the threat and called the uproar over how he describes terrorist groups a "political distraction."

Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not speak about the 911 transcript during her visit to Orlando Tuesday. She said the department is “determined to do anything we can to help this community heal, recover and become whole again.” 

But in comment sure to rankle conservatives, Lynch said authorities have not ruled out other motives for Mateen’s shooting rampage, in which he killed 49 and wounded 53 others, and that there is no specific explanation for why he targeted a gay nightclub.

“I cannot tell you definitively that we will ever be able to narrow this down to one motivation,” she said. "This was clearly an act of terror and an act of hate.”

Julian Hattem contributed.