A timeline of yesterday's events shows that it took the Obama administration 16 hours to disavow a statement posted on the US Embassy in Cairo website. It appears that the administration's failure to correct the embassy and the doubling down by embassy staff 13 hours after the statement was published prompted Mitt Romney's curt comments about the administration's response.
Here is a partial timeline of events. All times are Eastern Standard Time (EST), 6 hours earlier than Cairo time.
5:50AM - Cairo Embassy publishes a statement on its website which rejects those who "abuse" free speech. This is a reference to an anti-Islam film, portions of which have been broadcast on TV in Arabic. The entire speech is tweeted out line by line on the Embassy account.
1:42PM - The Associated Press tweets word of an attack on the Cairo Embassy. The US flag is pulled down and replaced with a black Islamic flag.
5:28PM - Cairo Embassy tweets out three defensive comments, the last of which doubles down on the initial statement. It reads "3) Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will
dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry." To this point there has been no comment, tweet, or statement defending free speech, only the statement/tweet criticizing those who abuse it.
7:00-7:20PM - The Embassy puts out another tweet tripling down on their initial statement. "This morning's condemnation (issued before the protests began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy." This tweet is later deleted.
8:06PM - AP reports an attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya has resulted in one death and one injury.
10:09PM - The Romney camp sends out a brief statement which reads, "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and
Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi.
It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not
to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with
those who waged the attacks." The statement is embargoed until midnight.
10:10PM - Politico reports an unnamed Obama administration official is disavowing the statement posted on the US Embassy website, claiming it was unauthorized. No explanation is offered why the embassy was still pushing it as of 7PM.
~10:25PM - The Romney camp sends out another email ending the embargo on its statement.
10:38-10:56PM - On the State Dept. Twitter feed, Hillary condemns the attack in Libya and confirms the death of an unnamed "officer" in Libya. One of the final tweets of the night reads " on the attack in : Let me be clear -- there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind." However, two other tweets mixed in with her reaction to Libya reaffirm a commitment to religious tolerance and denouncing "any intentional effort to denigrate the beliefs of others."
11:40PM-11:50PM - The Cairo Embassy deletes six tweets, including the one about "abuse" of free speech, one about hurting Muslims feelings, and the one tripling down on the initial statement (7:00PM). They do not delete two unobjectionable tweets which were at the heart of the morning press release. The latter of these echoes Hillary's statement about religious tolerance. The Embassy has effectively scrubbed the offending statements while retaining a portion which the Secretary has embraced.
The assumption made almost universally this morning is that the official statements
were the work of an undisciplined junior intern of some kind. Left-leaning author Jeffrey
Goldberg claimed Romney was wrong to blame Obama because "[t]he 'sympathy' was expressed not by someone in the administration, but by a tweeter in the besieged embassy in Cairo." A tweeter? Is that the official title of the bilingual diplomat who handles press at one of our most important embassies?
Goldberg fails to explain how this low-level "tweeter" was also able to
post a press release on the embassy website without any approval from his superiors.
In any case, the media is demanding to know why Romney jumped on this so soon rather than wait. No one seems to be asking why, instead, it took the Obama administration 16 hours to disavow an obviously offensive and indeed stupid statement. Was no one at the State Dept. in contact with the Cairo Embassy in the 13 hours before they reaffirmed the initial statement at 7pm? Apparently word had not gotten back to the "tweeter" that the administration was not thrilled.
Maybe the administration was busy with other things, though of course not so busy that they didn't ultimately find time to correct this. But there are other equally plausible possibilities which haven't been explored at all. First, it's possible the administration recognized early on that the Embassy statement was problematic but decided to wait until most of the media was in bed before correcting it. This is done all the time with so-called Friday document dumps. The story might have developed very differently throughout the day if the statement had been disavowed at 10AM instead of 10PM.
Second, it is a bit far fetched that something as important as attempting to head off a mob was left to a junior associate with no oversight by his superiors. Even if you buy that, which I don't, did no one pick up on it during the day? Finally, is it really likely that after a long day of getting beat up on social media the junior "tweeter" doubled and tripled down on the statement without checking in with his/her superiors? I'm no diplomat, but I have the impression this is not how things are generally done, not even by tweeters.
The fact is we don't actually know what happened behind the scenes. We have the self-serving disavowal of an unnamed official that this was not approved. Has anyone yet gone on the record with this? Why not? It suggests the administration was embarrassed, as they should be. That is not incompatible with either of the two options above. There has to be some explanation why the administration let this flawed statement sit out there for 16 hours. It's a shame no one in the media seems interested is asking.