By Brad Jacobson on 1/8/2009, 2:49pm PT  

Guest blogged by Brad Jacobson of MediaBloodhound

During Monday's State Department press briefing, Associated Press State Department Correspondent Matthew Lee posed the most pointed question about the conflict in Gaza and the Bush administration's position: "What’s wrong with an immediate cease-fire that doesn’t have to be sustainable and durable if, during the pause that you get from an immediate cease-fire, something longer-term can be negotiated?" Lee didn't tread lightly either when Deputy Secretary of State Sean McCormack failed to provide a sufficient answer and continued to challenge McCormack on the same point in Tuesday's press briefing.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to print: the substance of these exchanges never made it into Lee's corresponding articles...

First, here's the main exchange between Lee and McCormack on Monday:

LEE: If it’s true, as you say, and I think that you agree because you do say this humanitarian situation is dire, that lives are at stake, that there have been civilian casualties despite the efforts to minimize them.
LEE: What’s wrong with an immediate cease-fire that doesn’t have to be sustainable and durable if, during the pause that you get from an immediate cease-fire, something longer-term can be negotiated?
LEE: I don’t understand the calculus. If you say you want to save lives and protect people, why not accept something that is less --
LEE: --- than perfect if you can get to that point?
If you can use that to get to a point that is (inaudible)?
MCCORMACK: I guess the calculation is, Matt, fundamentally that you’re not going to get to that point under those circumstances.
LEE: How do you – how do you figure? How do you --
MCCORMACK: Well, you know, we’ve gone through circumstances like this before, and it – look, it’s – well, there are no sureties in these things. You know, you take a look at the facts, you take a look at history, and you make your best set of calculations and you do what you think is right in order to achieve the objectives that you have laid out. And it doesn’t – it perhaps helps the situation in the immediate term --
LEE: Well, if this is something that can perhaps do that, what’s wrong with that?
MCCORMACK: That’s exactly my point, Matt. Are you trading off against lives in the future that will be lost if you don’t go for a durable, sustainable cease-fire? We’re not willing to do that. Now, this may – of course, we have seen various protests, you know – capitals in the region as well. We’re aware of that. And we’re aware of the fact that lives have been lost, innocent life has been lost. In none of this are there any easy decisions. But you have to take the set of decisions that you believe will ultimately best benefit the people of the region, whether it’s the Palestinians or the Israelis. And people may disagree with our approach, our --
LEE: But isn’t the best benefit keeping people alive?
MCCORMACK: It is, Matt, but I – you know, I --
LEE: If there’s a chance that you can save some lives by going for an immediate cease-fire rather than one that is going to be – you know, that you know is going to be long-term and that meets your conditions, I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.
MCCORMACK: Well, again, Matt, there are people who are advocating that position. I understand that. But ultimately, we don’t think that you address the underlying issues if you don’t try to get a sustainable, durable, non-time-limited cease-fire. And if you don’t get that, you’re going to be right back here again, whether it’s – and you’re going to have somebody else up here three months from now, four months from now, five months from now, talking about the same kind of tragedy. Again, nobody wants to see the sort of humanitarian suffering that you’re seeing in Gaza. We’re not blind to that. We’re trying to address the immediate circumstances, as well as to try to address something that is more durable, so those people in Gaza and the people on the other side of the border can maybe perhaps have some more semblance of a normal life.

Lee also has some other fine moments in this press briefing, including this follow-up to another State Department correspondent's question about what signals the administration gave Israel regarding the military action in Gaza and if it approved of the newer ground incursion. McCormick answers the other correspondent and then Lee jumps in with a dose of reality regarding US foreign policy.

MCCORMACK: Well, this is – you know, this is a question that always comes up. We don’t give green lights, red lights, yellow lights. I think you heard from the Vice President they’re – they didn’t seek our permission or advice, and we didn’t seek to offer any of that. As I – as I said --
LEE: You know, that’s not – that’s just manifestly not true.
MCCORMACK: As I – yes, it is.
LEE: No, no – maybe in – maybe in this, but all over the world you are involved in giving green lights, red lights and yellow lights. I remember when–-
MCCORMACK: Am I talking --
LEE: --- when Musharraf --
MCCORMACK: Am I talking about anywhere else in the world, Matt? Am I talking about a specific circumstance? Look --

According to a LexisNexis and Google News search, Lee didn't publish a report after this briefing on Monday.

Lee returns to his original question in Tuesday's press briefing:

LEE: The point is, though, Sean, that if it – if what is proposed has a time limit or you don’t think it’s durable or sustainable, you’re not going to support that; correct?
MCCORMACK: That’s correct.
LEE: That – so while you want one immediately --
LEE: --- you will not accept one that is just a short or a temporary pause?
MCCORMACK: Again, we have deep concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza and for the innocent lives on both sides --
LEE: Well, if you do --
MCCORMACK: --- both sides of --
LEE: If you do --


LEE: Sean, can I go back to the question I asked yesterday?
LEE: I don’t – I still am not sure I understand your reasoning as to why, if innocent life can be saved --
LEE: --- even one innocent life can be saved by a temporary pause --
LEE: --- ceasefire, what’s wrong with that? Why --
MCCORMACK: There’s – look, I know that that is a point of view that is supported by many. And we value every single life, absolutely. But you also don’t want to get into a situation where you are trading off – you know, trading off saving even one life now, against losing 30, 40, 50 or more in the future and being right back in the same situation.
LEE: But you don’t know that you’re going to --
MCCORMACK: I know, Matt. Look, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to trying to solve these problems, absolutely not. And I would be the first one to acknowledge that these are tough, sometimes gut-wrenching decisions when you see some of the humanitarian suffering on the ground there. I fully acknowledge that. But we have to stand back from that and try to make what we believe are the best decisions possible that will improve the situation in the region for Israelis, Palestinians, and others who have an interest in seeing a different kind of Middle East. And I know there are different points of view on this matter, and I fully respect those points of view. But we are pursuing the course that we believe is in the best interests of the United States, as well as the people in the region.
LEE: But do you understand the impression that that gives or the – that that gives? I mean, that position that you take appears to many people to be a – the proverbial green light for the Israelis to go ahead and do whatever they want until they think that they’re done.
MCCORMACK: Look, you know, I can – all I can do is try to disabuse people of those impressions and those perceptions. Whether or not they listen to what I have to say or the reasoning behind it, I can’t control that. Look, we have seen this – you know, we have been in – the United States has been in similar circumstances --- you can cite many throughout history – of making very, very tough decisions. We had to make similarly tough decisions, for example, back in 2006 when there was a war between Israel and Hezbollah, one provoked by Hezbollah. At the end of that process, as difficult as it was, we believed that the status – you know, the status quo is much preferable and better than the status quo ante. As difficult as that was, and as great as the costs that were incurred in terms of human life and other ways--
LEE: And you’re saying that – so you’re saying that you have the same – that the calculus is the same in this case? That the status quo – what is happening on the ground right now is preferable to what it was before?
MCCORMACK: No, that’s not what I’m saying, Matt. Listen to what I’m saying. What I’m saying – the situation at the end of the conflict between --- you know, between Hezbollah and Israel, and currently, is better and preferable. It’s better for the people of Lebanon. It’s better for the people of Israel. It’s better for the region than the status quo ante.
LEE: So at that --
MCCORMACK: That’s not to say – that’s not to say there weren’t great costs that were incurred in that and that there weren’t difficult decisions that were taken in that regard. But what we can do, and what we have to do as stewards of our national interest as well as doing what we think is best for the interests of the people in the region, is the course that we are currently on.
LEE: So if we take that – this situation, you believe that once Israel is finished with what it’s doing, whatever it’s going to do, the situation in Gaza is going to be better than it was before?
MCCORMACK: You know, again, you’re viewing it through a particular – you know, the particular prism of somehow the United States is offering some sort of counsel about Israeli military operations. We are not.
LEE: No, no, no.
MCCORMACK: Our interest is in bringing about a durable, sustainable ceasefire so that the – what you have after conflict has ended is better than what you had before conflict began. Yeah.

After this Tuesday briefing, Lee wrote up and filed his story. With the misleadingly hopeful headline "Rice Traveling to UN to Push Gaza Cease-Fire" (please note: traditionally speaking, reporters don't write their own headlines), the article opens:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to New York and the United Nations on Tuesday in a bid to broker a sustainable cease-fire as soon as possible to end the crisis in Gaza.

Lee knows there's a stark difference between a "ceasefire" and the administration's "sustainable" or "durable" ceasefire. Most of his back and forth with McCormack for two days pivoted on these semantic but very consequential points of distinction. AP editors surely know this as well.

Yet the AP --- America's leading newswire service --- either carelessly or willfully misled its readers and all the news providers it supplied with this headline, many of which, as is often the case, then use it to frame this unfolding story. A headline much closer to the truth would've read "Rice Traveling to UN to Push Conditional Gaza Cease-Fire." Omit "conditional" or some such synonym and the headline gives the false impression that Rice is coming to the Palestinians' rescue. Lee and his editors at the AP realize as well that Rice is coming to the Palestinians' rescue like she came to the Lebanese civilians' rescue in 2006.

The piece continues:

Rice plans to hold several separate meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab and European foreign ministers to lobby for a three-tiered U.S. truce proposal and will then attend a U.N. Security Council meeting on Gaza, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The talks are intended "to further her efforts to bring about a cease-fire that is sustainable and durable concerning Gaza," he told reporters. The U.S. wants to see three key elements in any agreement: an end to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and securing between Gaza and Israel and between Gaza and Egypt.
McCormack said it was not clear if the council would adopt any resolution on Tuesday and said the United States could only support an immediate cease-fire if it is not time-limited and addresses the three U.S. points.

"We would like to see the violence end today," he said. "But we also want to see it end in a way that is sustainable and durable."

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino repeated that position.

"We want to get to a durable cease-fire as soon as possible," Perino said. "And if that is immediate, then we would certainly welcome that." [...]

Lee pressed McCormack on this administration position for two days, pinpointing and questioning the transparency of its illogic and brutal disregard to what is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis. But none of Lee's related questions, or McCormack's answers framed by those questions, ever appear in this article. Nor do they appear in Lee's article published the next day, "Rice Extends UN Visit Amid Gaza Truce Debate," which opens:

The Bush administration held off Wednesday from backing an Egyptian-French ceasefire proposal in Gaza, but urged a lasting agreement that would end ongoing violence between Israeli and Hamas forces that have killed more than 670 people.

If you watch or read what Lee said during the corresponding press briefings, it's hard to believe he decided to scrub those exchanges with McCormick. Of course it's possible. But the only thing that's certain is somewhere between Lee's exemplary work in those two prior press briefings and the AP's editorial process, someone decided to censor the pertinent truth about the reckless stupidity and grisly inhumanity of the administration's current Gaza stance.

Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.