WASHINGTON — It was the secret that bent but never quite fully broke.
The White House released a fabricated Tuesday schedule for President Barack Obama to conceal the fact that he was secretly flying to Afghanistan. It asserted that the president would be in the Oval Office all day meeting with Vice President Joe Biden, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and with senior advisers. Only a handful of U.S. journalists were made aware of the journey.
But by mid-morning word was filtering out through the warp-speed social medium of Twitter that Obama was already in Kabul.
The first to tweet was the Afghanistan news site TOLOnews which reported: “United States President Barack Obama has arrived in Kabul to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”
A political reporter for BuzzFeed, a website that combines original reporting with trend spotting on the internet, picked up the TOLOnews report, tweeted it and noted that no other U.S. media was reporting it. Shortly, the New York Post placed the TOLOnews report on its website.
The White House mobilized to tamp down the news and grasped for the one fig leaf it had: The report’s timing was wrong. Obama was still flying to Bagram Air Field Tuesday morning.
“I offered a factual response,” White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “No, he’s not in Kabul.”
BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith wrote a post later that Vietor called and warned that the news could put the president and those with him at risk and asked that the BuzzFeed tweet be taken down. Smith agreed, saying that like most news organizations he deferred to the White House’s judgment on true security risks. Soon, the New York Post removed its report as well.
The Associated Press was among a few news organizations notified in advance of Obama’s trip and pledged to secrecy. Similar arrangements occurred when President George Bush traveled secretly to Iraq.
“There’s a group of reporters that has to be aware of his movements in advance,” Vietor said. “Those reporters are read into those movements with the agreement that whey won’t report them until a predetermined time.”
Vietor said no U.S. reporter in on the secret broke it.