CNN teams with GOP to concoct new Afghanistan drama

CNN teams with GOP to concoct new Afghanistan drama

Tale doesn't add up

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In a stunning rebuke of the Biden administration, and proof that legislators are still fuming over the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, a bipartisan group of lawmakers “stormed out” of a classified briefing session because “officials failed to answer their basic questions.”

At least that’s the story CNN and Republicans told this week. But there’s little proof that bipartisan outburst actually happened, and plenty to indicate it did not. The episode seems to be the latest, heavy-handed example of the Beltway press pumping up administration critics in an effort to boost controversy surrounding Afghanistan — to keep treating hollow GOP claims as breaking news, while portraying President Joe Biden as being constantly under siege.

If Republicans and Democrats did collectively storm out of a closed-door intelligence briefing from top Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security officials, it would have represented a truly extraordinary news event. That kind of across-the-board protocol breach simply does not happen when high ranking players give national security briefings on Capitol Hill. It would be unprecedented.

There’s no indication the walkout actually occurred though, in part because CNN remains the only news outlet to report on the alleged bipartisan act of Congressional disobedience. If lawmakers had angrily marched out because questions weren’t being answered, news would have spread like wildfire across the Beltway and journalists would have easily confirmed the event.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, it appears nameless Republican sources spun a “stormed out” tale and CNN’s Kylie Atwood reported it as fact [emphasis added]:

Multiple lawmakers angrily stormed out of a classified briefing with members of the Biden administration on Afghanistan on Wednesday morning, according to three sources familiar with the briefing.

The Republican and Democratic lawmakers grew frustrated after State Department, Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, and Office of the Director of National Security officials failed to answer their basic questions during the briefing for members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the sources told CNN.

The report was quite clear — Republicans and Democrats furiously headed for the exits. And that’s what made the report so explosive, since Republicans complaining about the Biden administration barely qualifies as news anymore.



Atwood told CNN’s Jake Tapper the same story on Wednesday afternoon: “Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, we should note, Jake, stormed out of the room because they felt like they weren't getting the detailed information that they needed to really understand what else needs to be done here with regard to the U.S. evacuation efforts from Afghanistan.”

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, then told Tapper that "everybody walked out." The entire briefing room just emptied, according to the GOP tale told on CNN. (It’s quite likely McCaul, or his aides, served as sources for CNN’s dispatch about the walk-out.)

The truth is, CNN’s own report badly undercuts the idea that Democrats bolted the briefing because their Afghan queries were not being addressed.

From the eighth paragraph of the CNN story. [emphasis added]:

A Democratic aide told CNN that some of the members left Wednesday's classified briefing because there were Republican members who were not wearing masks in accordance with Covid-19 protocols. The aide added that many members are satisfied with the engagement from the State Department.

Who were the unnamed Democrats who stormed out?

Following the briefing, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Oversight Committee, and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, issued a joint statement thanking her colleagues for participating and looking forward to “conducting bipartisan oversight of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.”

If “everybody” had “stormed” out of the briefing — if Democrats were as angry as Republicans — wouldn’t Maloney and Lynch have mentioned that?

On Wednesday, CNN’s John King repeated the briefing story, but reported “angry lawmakers” had marched out — suddenly all references to Democrats had been eliminated.

As for any questions that were not directly answered at the briefing, which supposedly sparked the bipartisan furor, on Tuesday when U.S. senators received their own, similar briefing from top military leaders, lots of the questions posed were best answered by others. As Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. told the Navy Times, “a number of the questions in there applied to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, and they were not there to answer them.”

It’s fitting that it was CNN caught juicing the Afghanistan story because the network for weeks tried to turn the troop withdrawal story into something that it’s not — a presidency-defining failure.

It was CNN’s Clarissa Ward who famously declared that the United States’ effort to evacuate thousands of Afghans was doomed to failure. “I'm sitting here for 12 hours in the airport, 8 hours on the airfield and I haven't seen a single US plane take off,” she reported from Kabul on August 20. “How on Earth are you going to evacuate 50,000 people in the next two weeks? It just, it can’t happen.”

In the end, the U.S. evacuated more than 120,000 people.

At one point, CNN claimed the U.S. was inflicting “moral injury” by “abandoning” its allies, even as America continued to airlift tens of thousands of allies in the one of the largest, most successful post-war evacuations in history.

Simultaneously, CNN claimed Biden’s long-expected troop withdrawal meant the U.S. was “walking away from the world stage” and “leaving Europe exposed,” even though most European troops left Afghanistan seven years ago.

Bottom line: It’s highly unlikely that Democrats joined forces with Republicans this week to snub high-ranking administration officials and “stormed out” of an Afghanistan briefing.

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Media critic Dan Froomkin returns to his excellent site, Press Watch, with a new call to arms, “Press Watch Mission Statement: Political Journalism Needs a Reset”:

The uncontrolled spread of lies is anathema to everything American journalism stands for. Fighting it is the calling of our time.

But so far, all we’ve seen is baby steps. Yes, toward the end of the Trump presidency, political reporters finally started being a bit more assertive about describing some of what Trump and his enablers were saying as “lacking evidence,” as false, or even as lies. But as we have seen, for instance during the George W. Bush presidency, when a lie is repeated over and over again, calling it out once or twice doesn’t prevent it from gaining currency.

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