One of the latest mini-dramas in Washington’s overheated political scene is centered on whether the Obama administration manipulated the truth about the Iran nuclear negotiations in order to sell the resulting deal to Congress and the American public. The larger story is about how the earnest citizen can navigate in a world where officials, experts and journalists are engaged in a complicated exchange of information, spin and advocacy. It’s not necessarily a new problem, nor a fixable one, but it only deepens the mistrust between government and the governed.
The controversy was kicked off by a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, a presidential speechwriter and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications who is considered one of President Barack Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers. In addition to profiling Rhodes, though, the piece raises serious questions about the interactions between senior government officials promoting a particular policy and the wider world of experts and advocates who take positions on the merits of that policy. The article portrays a White House that intentionally used the sympathetic nonproliferation community to promote the Iran nuclear agreement, by carefully feeding information that may not have reflected an accurate picture of the talks that culminated in the July 2015 agreement.
Rhodes generally enjoys a good reputation as an earnest staffer who can speak authoritatively on or off the record on the president’s thinking. It’s not clear if he completely understood how the journalist, David Samuels, was planning to interpret the information Rhodes provided. Rhodes most likely was dismayed at the insinuation that his nongovernment contacts who genuinely supported the agreement were somehow his puppets. Samuels, who was on the record as being a critic of the agreement, captured a smug and triumphant tone in Rhodes, who was, after all, happily bragging about one of the major achievements of the administration: