Politics & Government

Washington establishment still reeling from Ben Rhodes profile

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made waves in Washington, D.C. in a profile detailing his campaign to promote the Iran nuclear deal.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made waves in Washington, D.C. in a profile detailing his campaign to promote the Iran nuclear deal. AP

The fallout of the Ben Rhodes profile in New York Times Magazine – in which the deputy national security advisor took pointed hits at Washington’s foreign policy establishment and press corps – continues days after its publication. The article has led to written responses from a number of journalists and foreign policy experts who believe they were unfairly characterized in the piece, as well as from Rhodes himself.

The profile, which ran in the print magazine Sunday but was posted online last Thursday, was written by freelancer David Samuels for the Times Magazine. It was an intimate look at the mind who helps shape President Barack Obama’s foreign policy messaging: “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends,” Rhodes told Samuels. The piece was considered by some to be a surprisingly frank and revealing description of how Rhodes believes he manipulated the Washington press corps into supporting the historic Iran nuclear agreement.

Samuels, who failed to disclose in the article he had lobbied for the preemptive bombing of Iran in 2009 and himself opposed the deal, created an image of journalists covering the deal as “compadres” of the administrations that acted as “an echo chamber” for its campaign in support of the deal.

The author mentioned by name two prominent D.C-based journalists: “For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative,” Samuels wrote.

Both rejected Samuels’ implication that they had actively marched in line behind the White House with regards to the deal, dutifully pushing out messaging crafted by Rhodes. Goldberg strongly objected to the assertion that he was “retailing” the deal for the White House and responded in a written piece for The Atlantic. He said he was never contacted by the Times to verify the claim.

“I did not find this mention of my name amusing at all, because Samuels is making a serious, unsourced, and unsubstantiated allegation against me in an otherwise highly credible publication (one for which I happened to work, in fact),” Goldberg wrote in his magazine. “And he did so without disclosing that he holds a longtime personal grudge against me.”

The Atlantic writer, who himself has been given tremendous access to the White House, contacted Rhodes to clear up the misunderstanding:

“I asked Rhodes if he told Samuels that he, or other administration officials, had ever handpicked me to retail their case for the Iran deal. This is what Rhodes said: ‘I told him that our goal was to try to convince you and a handful of other columnists that the Iran deal wasn’t a total catastrophe. I told him I don’t think I ever convinced you that it was a good deal.’ I asked again, ‘Did you tell him that I was handpicked by you to ‘retail’ your public relations message?’ ’Of course not,’ Rhodes said.”

Goldberg also contacted the Times, requesting a correction for the characterization that he helped “retail” the deal. New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein explained that the mention of the Atlantic writer was meant to show how valued his opinion of the deal was by the administration, not that Rhodes believed he had Goldberg in his pocket with regard to it.

“I want to be clear about what the piece was not saying,” Silverstein wrote to Goldberg. “Neither [Samuels] nor the Times Magazine was saying that you were some kind of unthinking shill for the administration. Of course not. In the context of that paragraph, what I took the sentence to mean is that Rhodes and the people working for him on the Iran deal had a small group of journalists in the traditional press who they saw as the most important conduits for them to get their message out, and that you were among that group (perhaps the most important in that group).”

Rozen of Al-Monitor was famous among the press corps covering the deal for her reporting on the issue, with a constantly active Twitter feed detailing the months-long negotiations that led to the final agreement last July. In the Rhodes profile, Samuels seemed to indicate Rozen was dutifully tweeting the White House position.

“Laura Rozen was my RSS feed,” Tanya Somanader, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, told Samuels. “She would just find everything and retweet it.”

Rozen told the Washington Post that the New York Times Magazine piece “mischaracterized” her role. She said she worked to disseminate information from all sides with regard to the deal.

“As I read it, [Somanader] says my Twitter feed was a source of info for her,” Rozen told the Post in an email. “Samuels seems to mischaracterize that to say the opposite.”

A member of the “Blob” – Rhodes’ term of endearment for the Washington foreign policy establishment, also responded to accusations that he’d been manipulated by the administration to push out propaganda in support of the deal. Joe Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a group called out by Rhodes for supporting the nuclear deal: “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else,” Rhodes told Samuels. “So we knew the tactics that worked.”

Cirincione objected to Samuel’s characterization that the administration crafted an “onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal.”

“One of Samuels’ biggest fallacies is his claim that the world’s leading nuclear policy and national security experts were duped by Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser whom Samuels portrays as a digital Machiavelli spinning gullible reporters and compliant experts into accepting a bad deal,” the Ploughshares president wrote in Politico.

Cirincione goes on to mention the hundreds of experts who came out publicly in support of the deal, saying “It is absurd to believe that all these officials and experts were duped. They supported the deal because it was the most promising path to preventing an Iranian bomb.”

Finally, Rhodes himself also offered written clarification of the interviews he gave Samuels, defending the campaign he waged to see the deal successfully passed through Congress in September. He seemed to walk back is disparaging comments about the age (“the average reporter we talk to is 27 years old”) and competency (“They literally know nothing”).

“Every press corps that I interacted with vetted that deal as extensively as any other foreign policy initiative of the presidency. A review of the press from that period will find plenty of tough journalism and scrutiny. We had to answer countless questions about every element of the deal and our broader Iran policy from reporters,” Rhodes wrote on Medium. “Indeed, I hardly remember last summer as a time of glowing reviews about the Iran deal. Opponents of the deal were more than capable of ensuring that their arguments were given prominent attention online, on opinion pages, and on television. And that only made it more of an imperative for us to answer hard questions.”