The White House National Security Council’s chief spokesperson on Wednesday backed away from the NSC’s widespread attack on a HuffPost article that detailed a controversial proposal for post-war Gaza that has circulated within the Biden administration.
THE article published Friday, written by Akbar Shahid Ahmed, HuffPost’s senior diplomatic correspondent, revealed a potential plan to restore peace to the Middle East by brokering diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia while channeling Saudi money toward rebuilding Gaza. Ahmed cited several U.S. officials who described the proposal and shared doubts about its chances of success, with one calling it “deliriously optimistic.”
But after the article attracted widespread attention, the White House, which initially declined to comment, appeared to accuse Ahmed of fabricating quotes in the article: “This story is not true,” wrote NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to Ahmed on Saturday. “The quotes attributed to US officials are made up. This does not warrant any further comment.
During Wednesday White House press briefingNSC chief spokesperson John Kirby softened the administration’s attack on the article’s underlying credibility without directly retracting Watson’s statement.
“This was not an attempt to question journalism or denigrate journalistic ethics,” Kirby said. in response to a question from Sabrina Siddiqui of the Wall Street Journal (Siddiqui is a former HuffPost journalist). “I can understand that some people might see this reaction and think we were trying to bring journalistic ethics and procedure into disrepute, and that was not the intention.”
Kirby’s comments follow days of heated exchanges with Ahmed and senior HuffPost executives and widespread condemnation from the press.
Immediately after Watson accused Ahmed of making up quotes in his article, HuffPost editor-in-chief Whitney Snyder required a retraction and an apology.
“Watson played no role in my interviews,” Ahmed posted on (formerly Twitter), noting that the White House did not provide comments in response to detailed questions he submitted prior to publication. “They can’t actually challenge the story on its merits, so they resort to lies.”
Dozens of journalists and policymakers responded. “Utterly embarrassing, disgusting and unprofessional of @NSC_spox,” Chris Hayes posted onreferring to the NSC spokesperson, in a representative example.
Kirby continued Wednesday to dispute a single element of the article.
Ahmed reported that the proposal for Gaza’s post-war reconstruction was outlined by senior White House official Brett McGurk in a top secret document circulating among national security officials. An official told Ahmed that the plan calls for Biden to go on a “victory tour” of the region and that the document refers to a preliminary agreement called the “Jerusalem-Jeddah Compact.”
“We don’t have a document that says these things,” Kirby told reporters at the briefing.
In an exchange with the White House this weekend, Snyder said HuffPost stands by “our source’s description of a document outlining a plan for a Saudi-Israeli pact linked to Gaza.” He also criticized the White House for failing to reverse its initial statement, which he said “constituted a broad rejection of the entire HuffPost story and an allegation that Akbar fabricated multiple quotes from several officials.
After Kirby’s briefing, HuffPost reiterated that it stood behind this story.
“Akbar Shahid Ahmed’s reporting on Brett McGurk’s proposal for rebuilding Gaza is an example of the in-depth, rich, high-quality journalism that HuffPost is proud to produce,” said Lizzie Grams, HuffPost spokesperson. . “We strongly support Akbar’s reporting and appreciate the NSC’s clarification that it did not intend to attack Akbar or HuffPost’s journalistic ethics. We look forward to the complete withdrawal of the NSC’s initial statement.”