Thursday, Sep 13, 2012 4:10 PM UTC

Cairo embassy’s statement: What went wrong?

A series of ill-timed, tragic events led to the Cairo's embassy's statement being taken out of context

At 12:18 p.m. on Sept. 11, Cairo embassy senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz posted the following (now well-known) statement on the Cairo Embassy Web site:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Demonstrators started gathering at the embassy about two hours later. Within four hours, they had scaled the wall. That night, protests in Libya erupted and four Americans died. Suddenly, everyone had taken notice of Schwartz’s seemingly innocuous statement (which he had cleared with Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers). Due to the time difference, Americans waking up on the East Coast conflated the statement with the attack in Libya, which happened later (and almost 700 miles away). The statement then evolved into a P.R. disaster for Mitt Romney who used it to bludgeon Obama for being an apologist.

Foreign Policy reported that Schwartz, who is also responsible for the embassy’s Twitter feed, had not received permission from the State Department to post the statement at all. In fact, it had rejected it:

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.’”

Though the statement has stirred so much controversy, on last night’s “60 Minutes,” Obama was cool-headed about the ordeal:

“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.”

Officials in Cairo told Foreign Policy that Schwartz “remains at post at the same capacity as he was.”

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