It's not unusual for reporters and press flacks to exchange strong words, but it is unusual for them to go deep-six nuclear on each other—and that's exactly what transpired between longtime Hillary Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings in a radioactive e-mail exchange published today. The most striking part? The exchange, which includes such pleasantries as "Fuck Off" and "Have a nice life," was based on utterly defensible questions surrounding the State Department's response to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
But first, let's add some context. All weekend long, the State Department has been waging a furious campaign against CNN for reporting on the newsworthy bits of a journal written by Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya killed alongside three other U.S. personnel in Benghazi this month. After discovering the journal, CNN delivered it to Stevens' family and requested permission to report out the newsworthy elements of it. The family said no, so CNN, instead of revealing the source of its scoop, reported that a source "familiar" with the ambassador's thinking says Stevens "worried about what he called the never-ending security threats specifically in Benghazi." That was a newsworthy item because, to some, it appeared to contradict State Department pronouncements that it had no intelligence about the attack on the Benghazi consulate ahead of time. Regardless, the CNN report didn't make the State Department happy: It called the decision to report on the journal an "indefensible" and "disgusting" breach of privacy.
Now this is where Hastings enters the picture in an e-mail to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's spokesman Phillippe Reines:
A few quick questions for you. Why didn't the State Department search the consulate and find AMB Steven's diary first? What other potential valuable intelligence was left behind that could have been picked up by apparently anyone searching the grounds? Was any classified or top secret material also left? Do you still feel that there was adequate security at the compound, considering it was not only overrun but sensitive personal effects and possibly other intelligence remained out for anyone passing through to pick up? Your statement on CNN sounded pretty defensive--do you think it's the media's responsibility to help secure State Department assets overseas after they've been attacked?
Right off the bat, Reines fires back, calling Hastings's email "needlessly antagonistic" and adding that the State Department has "addressed much of your questions"—he'd copied a State official to "remind [Hastings] of what's already been thoroughly answered." He then reiterated his claim that CNN acted unethically by publishing some of the journal's contents:
I believe CNN had a responsibility to not make promises to the family it would not keep.
If that's too much to ask, I believe CNN had at the very least a responsibility to make their intentions on the use of Chris's diary clear to the family from the outset.
I believe CNN had a responsibility to not deceive its own viewers for more than 48 hours on the source of their reporting, using convoluted attribution they themselves had to clarify, before admitting it was the diary they were relying on ... I believe that many within CNN agree with everything I'm saying.
At this point, they're still having a totally adult, albeit combative, discussion. Hastings follows up with the rationale behind his questions:
From my perspective, the scandal here is that the State Department had such inadequate security procedures in place that four Americans were killed. And then the Ambassador's diary--and who knows what else--was left behind for anyone to pick up. Thankfully, it was CNN--and not Al Qaeda or some other militia--that found it and was able to return it to the family. That CNN used portions of the material in the diary they found at the scene--material that appears to contradict the official version of events that State/WH has been putting out--is completely in line with practices of good journalism.
The misinformation here seems largely to be coming from State and the administration. The defense that the administration has offered that there was no intelligence warning of an attack is weak. If there was no intel, then clearly the CIA and other intel agents stationed in Benghazi weren't doing their jobs well. If there was intel, then we have some kind of cover-up--whether out of incompetence or ass covering before the election or just the trauma of losing four good men, it's hard for me to say at this point.
And here's where everything unravels. Reines, seemingly fed up with the inquiry, responds with a terse question: " Why do you bother to ask questions you've already decided you know the answers to?" Hastings, definitely providing a spark, adds some profanity. "Why don't you give answers that aren't bullshit for a change?" From there, Reines repeatedly invites Hastings to "Fuck Off," the discussion goes nowhere, except that Hastings publishes the exchange this afternoon to the chagrin of Reines.
Stunningly, this whole exchange was apparently on the record. That's surprising because A) spokespersons typically place an off-the-record condition on occasions when they want to ream out reporters and B) Reines knows better, he's been with Clinton for years and is a consumate Washington veteran (he appears in the foreground in the above photo) who's been profiled everywhere from The New York Times to The Washington Post to Politico. It's also important to note that Hastings's questions are perfectly legitimate. As we've noted previously, the State Department and the White House have given mixed messages in the days following the attack on Benghazi. First it was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam film, then it was a terrorist attack potentially involving Al Qaeda. Hard mess-ups like that beget hard questions, and responding with inflammatory screeds over e-mail is hardly a way to get back on message.