Shortly before 9:19 a.m. this morning the Afghanistan-based 24-hour broadcast news station TOLONews tweeted that President Barack Obama had landed in Afghanistan.
The surprise trip was a closely guarded secret, kept by White House officials and members of the White House press corps — as is customary with presidential trips to war zones. It coincides with the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and according to the White House pool report, Obama is expected to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama’s schedule for today included a handful of routine meetings in the Oval Office, and no hint of the journey.
The TOLONews tweet was spotted by Huffington Post reporter Joshua Hersh, who wondered “Is this right?” setting in motion a frantic effort by the White House to keep word of Obama’s trip out of the press until he was out of harm’s way.
The scramble by the White House national security team was last seen after Agence France Press reported that Malia Obama was vacationing in Mexico with friends. The rapid response also reflects the longsanding sense inside the White House that they can’t give up an inch to the press on security issues, or else no one will think twice the next time around.
Is this right? RT @TOLOnews BREAKING: United States President Barack Obama has arrived in Kabul to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai.â€” Joshua Hersh (@joshuahersh) May 1, 2012
In a tweet moments later, this reporter noted the TOLONews report and that no U.S.-based outlet was reporting the same.
A few minutes later, at 9:33, National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor called BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who had retweeted the report, to ask that the tweet be taken down, warning that it would endanger the life of the president and everyone with him if the tweet was not removed.
“Like most news organizations, we will typically defer to the White House’s judgment on true security risks,” Smith said, explaining why BuzzFeed complied with the request. “In this case, we had no original reporting on the subject, and it didn’t seem like right moment to have an abstract argument about the contemporary media ecosystem, though I think it’s getting harder and harder to unring these bells.”
Vietor asked to be quoted saying the following:
White House spokesman: "The Presidnet is not in Kabul"â€” Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) May 1, 2012
At the same time military and diplomatic sources quickly tried to silence the reports, denying that Obama was in Kabul and noting they “are not in a position” to confirm reports about the visit.
Reports that President Obama is in Kabul are false.â€” U.S. Embassy Kabul (@USEmbassyKabul) May 1, 2012
Contrary to some media rpts, ISAF has NOT confirmed Pres. Obama visit; we are not in position to do soâ€” ISAF (@ISAFmedia) May 1, 2012
By 9:37, the New York Post had published an item on the trip based off the TOLONews tweet, and by 9:53 it was running in the ticker “Breaking News” at the top of its home page. By 10:06 the story was updated to add the “strong” White House denial and minutes later the breaking news alert was removed from the homepage. Sometime in the interim, the initial tweet from TOLONews was removed as well.
But the White House was only partially successful at keeping the press at bay. The Post kept their story up for hours without a homepage link, and by 11:30 it was a red link at the top of the Drudge Report.
By early afternoon, however, the New York Post story was gone as well. After the news broke, a Post spokesman email a self-congratulatory statement from editor in chief Col Allan:
The White House informed the Post today the report on its website that President Obama was in Kabul was not accurate and that, in publishing it, the paper was endangering the President’s life. With due respect to the White House and out of an abundance of caution, the Post removed the story from its website. We are impressed the White House believes the Taliban, while hiding in caves and dodging American drones, are, like millions of others, avid readers of nypost.com.
The Weekly Standard, however, picked up the ball, and the Drudge Link.
“So the question remains: where is President Obama?” the magazine asked.
Around 2:00 p.m., the Standard’s story disappeared as well. Drudge switched his link to a brief dispatch from Xinhua, the official Chinese agency of the People’s Republic of China.
At 3:00 p.m., the Associated Press reported that President Obama was in Afghanistan to sign an agreement on America’s post-war role in the country, and will speak from Bagram Air Base in Kabul tonight at 7:30 p.m.
The TOLONews report turned out to be false — Obama didn’t land in Kabul until shortly before 2:00 p.m. Eastern time, making the White House and other denials that Obama wasn’t in Kabul true at the time.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor reflected on his day quashing reports of the President’s travel.
“The TOLONews report was inaccurate,” Vietor said, “so it was 100 percent true and easy to tell people that. When people say ‘is he in transit’ that’s a different story.”
“The way this works is a small group of press are read into the fact of this trip ahead of time,” Vietor said.” “For operational security reasons it can’t be public until they land. There is a firm agreement between news agencies and the White House not to report until the plane is on the ground.”
Vietor said the arrangement with reporters is standard operation procedure, though news of the trip leaking four hours early is anything but.
Asked about The Drudge Report’s decision to keep swapping links, Vietor replied, “There is nothing you can do about Drudge.”
“When outlets that I knew or worked with the White House called and we asked them to take it down or we gave them the quote I gave [BuzzFeed],” he added.