Inside the public relations disaster at the Cairo embassy
One staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was responsible for the statement and tweets Tuesday that have become grist for the presidential campaign, and that staffer ignored explicit State Department instructions not to issue the statement, one U.S. official close to the issue told The Cable. Two additional administration officials confirmed the details of ...
One staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was responsible for the statement and tweets Tuesday that have become grist for the presidential campaign, and that staffer ignored explicit State Department instructions not to issue the statement, one U.S. official close to the issue told The Cable.
Two additional administration officials confirmed the details of this account when contacted late Wednesday by The Cable.
The statement, issued as a press release on the U.S. Embassy website, has been attacked by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, lawmakers, and conservatives around the country as an inappropriate "apology" and a failure to stand up for American principles such as freedom of speech.
The White House distanced itself from the statement Tuesday, and Romney criticized it directly in his initial reaction to the attacks in Egypt and Libya shortly thereafter, accusing President Barack Obama of evicing sympathy for the attackers.
On Wednesday, Romney doubled down on that criticism, saying, "I think it’s a terrible course for America to apologize for our values."
President Obama commented on the controversy in an interview to be aired Wednesday evening on 60 Minutes.
"In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger," Obama said. "And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office."
But Obama’s remarks belie the enormous frustration of top officials at the State Department and White House with the actions of the man behind the statement, Cairo senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz, who wrote the release and oversees the embassy’s Twitter feed, according to a detailed account of the Tuesday’s events.
The official noted that the statement was posted at exactly 12:18 p.m. Cairo time — 6:18 a.m. Washington time — well before the protests began. Romney has said, wrongly, that the statement was the administration’s first response to the protests, but the official said that the demonstrations did not begin until 4 p.m. Cairo time and protesters breached the wall about 2 hours later.
After the breach, as public criticism of the statement grew, the Cairo Embassy Twitter account continued to send out tweets defending it, some of which were later deleted. One deleted tweet, originally posted at 12:30 a.m. Cairo time, said, "This morning’s condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy."
Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with just one person senior to himself, Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the charge d’affaires at the embassy on Tuesday because Ambassador Anne Patterson was in Washington at the time, the official said.
Schwartz sent the statement to the State Department in Washington before publishing and the State Department directed him not to post it without changes, but Schwartz posted it anyway.
"The statement was not cleared with anyone in Washington. It was sent as ‘This is what we are putting out,’" the official said. "We replied and said this was not a good statement and that it needed major revisions. The next email we received from Embassy Cairo was ‘We just put this out.’"
A heated discussion ensued among State Department and White House officials over e-mail as the controversy over the statement grew Tuesday evening, even grabbing the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, those same officials were dealing with a more serious attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of four American officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
"People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content," the official said. "Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.’"
Despite being aware of Washington’s objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.
"Not only did they push out the statement but they continued to engage on Twitter and retweet it," the official said. "[Schwartz] would have been the one directing folks to engage on Twitter on this."
At approximately 10:30 p.m. Washington time, Clinton issued a statement on both the Libya and Egypt attacks that included a reference to religious tolerance as well as an emphasis on the administration’s condemnation of the embassy attack.
"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others," she said. "Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Despite his disregard of Washington’s instructions and his actions throughout the day Tuesday, Schwartz has not yet been disciplined in any way and is still the lead public affairs officer at the embassy.
"He remains at post at the same capacity as he was," the official said.
The State Department declined to comment and a request sent to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for comment was not immediately returned.