05/10/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated May 10, 2013

So You're Thinking About Having An Off-The-Record Press Briefing On Benghazi, Eh? [UPDATE]

UPDATE: Okay, so, now we learn that this press briefing was not, as previously reported, "off the record." Rather, it was "on deep background." What does that mean? "Deep background means that the info presented by the briefers can be used in reporting but the briefers can't be quoted." (Part of the fun of "deep background" is that sometimes the briefers jump back and forth between being "on the record" and "on background" and so you'll often see reporting that seemingly includes a named source that says one thing and an unnamed source that says a different thing, and it turns out that this is the same person.)

Anyway, so, this Benghazi briefing was not as shady as an "off the record" briefing. I still think my commentary stands as instructive, but feel free to disagree.


I am reminded today of a passage from Neil Barofsky's Bailout, in which the bailout overseer interviews Kris Belisle, who would go on to be the communications director for his SIGTARP office.

During her interview, Kris opened our conversation dramatically, saying, "I should tell you right off the bat, if you're looking for the traditional type of press officer, you shouldn't hire me."

"What does that even mean?" I asked.

She responded that in most governmental agencies, it is often expected that the press officer will spin, shade, or even hide any facts that might put the agency in a negative light.

"The number one goal of most agencies is, frankly, to try and make the principal [Washington-speak for the head of the agency] look good, no matter what the actual facts are, even if it means lying to or misleading the press," she explained. "I won't do that. I won't lie for you. I won't compromise my integrity, and I won't compromise this office's integrity." She had my full attention.

Brief pause: One of the more substantive parts of the inquiry over what happened in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, last year only exists because the State Department seems to have followed the "number one goal" that Belisle describes. Now they are in trouble. Peter Van Buren summarizes this week's congressional hearing on the matter, thusly:

Most fingers pointed toward Under Secretary of Management Pat Kennedy and Hillary [Clinton] aid [sic] Cheryl Mills as acting as Hillary’s proxies to make the bad, tragic, decisions. Long-term fallout unclear, but a lot of angry people in Foggy Bottom right now. The State Department was portrayed as disorganized, and often far more concerned about political impressions than the safety of its people and informing the American public.

Please note that this does not necessarily mean that anyone did anything evil or criminal. It's just a Washington bureaucratic default setting and from time to time I'm left wondering why anyone thinks that sticking to it is a good idea. It never seems to really work.

But let's return to our swelling scene from Bailout:

"So what would your strategy be?" I asked.

"We'll be completely transparent with the press," Kris responded, correctly presuming that she already had the job. "We'll admit and even highlight our mistakes."

"Okay. I understand the not lying, but my guess is that as a start-up, we're going to have more than our fair share of screwups. Why would we want to bring them to the press's attention?" I asked, intrigued.

"Because if we do, we'll earn the press's trust. They'll know we're not spinning like everyone else. SIGTARP will quickly become the only credible source for information in Washington about TARP. We might be embarrassed at times and disclose things that we could -- and others would -- easily hide, but we'll shock the press with our honesty. No one else does this, and before long, we'll have a built in defense when we're attacked. No matter what they hear, the press will come to us first and believe us, because we'll prove to them that we tell the truth."

And this, folks, is why you don't hold an off-the-record briefing with reporters about Benghazi.

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