ACLJ Obtains Full, Unredacted Psaki Email Detailing That the Obama-Biden Administration Was “Battening Down the Hatches” and Trying To “Shut . . . Down” Any Public Information on Secret Iran Deal Negotiations
We have just obtained a critical email from current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki from when she was State Department Press Secretary during the Obama-Biden Iran deal negotiations.
The email – which had been redacted but was ordered to be turned over to the ACLJ unredacted as part of our five-year-old lawsuit against the State Department – shows that the Obama Administration was trying to “shut . . . down” and “battening down the hatches” on any public discussion of the secret Obama-Biden bilateral negotiations with Iran on the disastrous Iran deal.
To understand the context of what we are learning from this email, we have to go back more than eight years.
In March 2013, then-Fox News reporter James Rosen questioned Victoria Nuland (Psaki’s predecessor at the State Department) about when negotiations between the U.S. and Iran took place. Here’s the exchange from the February 6, 2013, press briefing:
QUESTION: There have been reports that intermittently, and outside of the formal P-5+1 mechanisms[,] the Obama Administration, or members of it, have conducted direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran. Is that true or false?
MS. NULAND: We have made clear, as the Vice President [Biden] did at Munich, that in the context of the larger P-5+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 a government-to-government level, no.
It has now been revealed that senior U.S. diplomats—Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser—conducted at least five secret negotiations with Iranian officials in Oman's capital of Muscat. Top administration nuclear-arms negotiator Wendy Sherman also participated. Administration officials later admitted that lower-level talks with Iran commenced in 2011 and occurred in Muscat.
Here is how AP reporter Julie Pace (she plays into this further below) explained it:
Last year, while Jake Sullivan was traveling with his boss, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he quietly disappeared during a stop in Paris. He showed up again a few days later, rejoining Clinton’s traveling team in Mongolia.
In between, Sullivan secretly flew to the Middle Eastern nation of Oman to meet with officials from Iran, people familiar with the trip said. The July 2012 meeting is one of the Obama administration’s earliest known face-to-face contacts with Iran and reveals that Sullivan — who moved from the State Department to the White House earlier this year — was personally involved in the administration’s outreach to the Islamic republic far earlier than had been reported.
Senior administration officials had previously confirmed to The Associated Press that Sullivan and other officials held at least five secret meetings with Iran this year, preparing the way for an interim nuclear agreement signed in November by Iran, the United States and five other world powers.
In the now infamous December 2, 2013, State Department press briefing (the relevant portion of which was deleted from the State Department’s website), Rosen followed up with Psaki about the news of the secret bilateral talks and the prior denial of those talks in March, asking point blank if the Obama-Biden Administration lied. Here is the December 2, 2013, exchange between Rosen and Psaki:
QUESTION: On the 6th of February in this room, I had a very brief exchange with your predecessor, Victoria Nuland --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- 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 P5+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 [Biden] did at Munich, that in the context of the larger P5+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 a 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?
MS. PSAKI: I mean, James, I – that – 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 for you.
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?
MS. 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, Jen --
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: -- and I appreciate your indulgence.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: 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?
MS. PSAKI: James, I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that. Obviously, we have made clear and laid out a number of details in recent weeks about discussions and about a bilateral channel that fed into the P5+1 negotiations, and 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 from addressing directly this question: Were there secret direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iranian officials in 2011?
MS. 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: One more on Iran?
QUESTION: The Los Angeles Times and Politico have reported that those talks were held as far back as 2011. Were those reports inaccurate?
MS. 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?
MS. PSAKI: I have nothing more for you on it, James, today.
It was this exchange that was deleted from the State Department website. When we learned about it, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and lawsuit. As a result, we obtained a “sensitive but unclassified” document from the State Department showing “Evidence of Purposeful Editing” led to the deletion of that video -- and not a “glitch” as the Obama-Biden State Department first claimed.
As our litigation continued, we also received an email chain from December 4, 2013 (two days after the press conference concerning the secret meetings and lies), but it was almost completely redacted.
The December 2, 2013, email began as a request from Julie Pace, the AP reporter who helped break the story of the earlier bilateral meetings between the Obama-Biden Administration and Iran, asking for further confirmation. She asked:
[S]o I’m working on a Jake Sullivan profile and in the course of my reporting, I was told that he actually held a face-to-face meeting with Iranian officials in Oman in July 2012 and that he dropped off a Clinton trip briefly to do so. It’s from a pretty reliable source but would feel more comfortable with some guidance from you guys since I know the circle on this stuff wasn’t very big.
The email was passed up the chain from Bernadette Meehan (then-Director of Strategic Communications for the National Security Council), to Jen Psaki (then-State Department Spokeswoman), Marie Harf (then-Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department), and Ben Rhodes (then- President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor). Their subsequent discussions were completely redacted under the State Department’s claims of presidential communications privilege -- a high-level FOIA privilege that allows the government to not release records of communications of advice to sitting U.S. presidents.
We went to court; and in a major victory, we obtained a court order requiring the Biden State Department to turn over to the ACLJ the completely unredacted email. In fact, the court ordered the State Department to turn over the unredacted email to the judge for in-camera review – a very rare move where the judge gets to see the information in order to make a determination if it should be turned over to the public.
Here, the court agreed with us and rejected the State Department’s claims that this was protected by the presidential communications privilege. The Biden State Department was required to turn over this information directly to the ACLJ or file an appeal. We learned late last week that the State Department decided not to appeal the case and would in fact turn the document over to us. We’ve now obtained the full email.
Meehan sent the email chain where she refused to comment to the AP reporter to Psaki, Harf, and Rhodes, asking them to read her conversation with the reporter and further commenting:
Per the conversation in the Iran SVTC [Secure Video Teleconference] on Tuesday, we are battening down the hatches on further questions related to the bilateral channel. If you could flag for Bill before he speaks with Julie tomorrow, as I assume she will ask him. We are not going beyond confirming that the original AP story was accurate, and are declining any additional requests to confirm/provide any additional info.
Later that night, Psaki replied to the group, “Happy to and we will also work to shut Gordon down.”
This email further puts into context what the court’s order in our case confirmed regarding the Iran Secure Video Teleconference meeting that was the day before this email:
Quoting from the court’s opinion, we learned in this case that there was an “inter-agency government meeting, involving high-level officials in the administration’s foreign policy and national security teams, pertaining to Iran.” As the court explained, “the meeting was convened under the PPD-1 framework—established to consider national security policy issues requiring presidential determination . . . . Moreover, . . . the meeting was called to address press reports and the Administration’s response to them . . . .” It is also clear from the court’s order that “a key decision . . . was made at the meeting in question. . . . In addition, . . . the decision concerned how to address ‘the administration’s response to the press reports regarding U.S.-Iran talks’ and ‘how to communicate Iran-related policy to the public’ . . . .” Additionally, we learned that Bernadette Meehan and Ben Rhodes, two advisors to President Obama, “were involved in passing on a decision reached at the meeting to Psaki and [Marie] Harf at State.” We’ve further learned through our litigation, from the State Department’s own arguments, that this “meeting” occurred within two days of and regarded “the subject of the December 2, 2013, press briefing video” – the now infamous deleted press briefing video about the Iran negotiations – which is the main subject of our FOIA.
One thing is VERY clear from these emails. The Obama-Biden team did not want the press or the American people to know any more details about its secret bilateral communications with Iran ahead of making a deal, especially those negotiations that occurred prior to 2013 and the supposedly moderate Rouhani regime. They deleted the video of the exchange with Rosen where they admitted to withholding the information. We also know that the Biden Administration still didn’t want the American people to know about what it was hiding, refusing to comply with our FOIA request, then redacting the relevant information, and trying to fight us in court for years to block this information from coming to light.
It is also important to note the “Gordon” who was referenced by Psaki as someone she would “shut . . . down,” is very likely Philip Gordon who was one of the senior Iran deal negotiators at the time. Gordon is someone who has been frequently in contact with the media. And it is very likely that the Obama-Biden Administration wanted to “shut . . . down” any further communication with the press from anyone who was in the know about the Iran deal.
We also know that Pace, the AP reporter from the email chain, had a December 2013 interview with William “Bill” Burns, then-Deputy Secretary of State, who was involved in the Iran negotiations (commenting on the negotiations: “By the early fall, I think it became clear to all of us that there was an opportunity,” Burns said in an interview. “But neither Jake nor I underestimated the difficulty.”), who was likely the “Bill” referenced in Meehan’s email.
This is still incredibly relevant today as now the Biden Administration is once again seeking to reenter the Iran nuclear deal – a disastrous deal cloaked from the beginning in deception.
As we’ve explained before:
[I]t’s rather alarming that Ms. Psaki has authorized herself to determine when she should and should not tell the truth, considering that she now speaks for the White House and President Biden. But maybe it’s not all that surprising.
The Obama Administration – of which then-Vice President Biden was an integral part – engaged in closed-door negotiations with Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, long before the public knew. And then they tried to obscure the facts to cover it up. They lied to the American people about the most critical and controversial diplomatic negotiations in decades.
In the censored video, President Obama’s State Department – and Psaki specifically – essentially admitted as much. The decision to scrub the video was part of an intentional cover-up. The decision to call the alteration a “glitch” was part of that cover-up. And we’ve obtained the “sensitive” State Department internal memo detailing “evidence of purposeful editing” that proves it. Further, the decision to not fully comply with our lawful FOIA request proves what we’ve suspected all along.
It is also important to know that many of the key individuals caught up in these emails are currently serving in the Biden Administration. Jen Psaki is now President Biden’s White House Press Secretary. Jake Sullivan is now the National Security Advisor. Philip Gordon is now Special Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris. Bill Burns is now President Biden’s CIA Director. And Bernadette Meehan is currently the Executive Vice President of Global Programs at the Obama Foundation.
Most of these individuals are still key players in the Biden Administration’s attempts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. The American people deserve the truth about these efforts.
This is a critical victory but raises new questions: Why was the Obama-Biden Administration so intent on keeping this information from the American public, and why is the Biden Administration continuing that effort? We will continue to press for answers as we litigate a number of FOIA lawsuits that seek answers to these questions.