Why did John Kirby mislead over China spy base in Cuba?

Karine Jean-Pierre, John Kirby
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre listens as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Why did John Kirby mislead over China spy base in Cuba?

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Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had agreed to pay Cuba billions of dollars to establish a major signals and electronic intelligence station on the island.

It was a bombshell story reflecting escalating tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations. Unfortunately, the Biden administration wasn’t interested in being straight with the people.

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Asked about the report that same Thursday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was explicit with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. As he put it, “I’ve seen that press report. It’s not accurate.” Asked by Mitchell to confirm his denial, Kirby responded, “I’m saying we’ve seen the report. It’s not accurate.” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder similarly added that “I can tell you, based on the information that we have, that that is not accurate, that we are not aware of China and Cuba developing any type of spy stations.”

On Monday, however, Kirby confirmed the substance of the Journal’s report, noting only that the base is already operating rather than simply planned. Asked why he had denied the report last week, Kirby was unapologetic. Indeed, he was arrogant.

“I’m actually really glad you asked that question,” Kirby said. This is Kirby’s petulant go-to response when he’s challenged by journalists on the administration’s discrepancies or failings. He added, “I can tell you that we were as forthcoming as we should have been at the time the first stories appeared.” Far from being misleading, Kirby suggested that the Biden administration actually deserved credit for acting “expeditiously as we could” to declassify intelligence on the spy base. Kirby claimed that “the sensitive nature of this information is such that we just couldn’t go into more detail,” reemphasizing that “we were as forthcoming as we should have been.”

Beijing is loving it. Asked about the discrepancy in U.S. statements, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson declared on Monday that “this is another example of ‘the U.S. negating the U.S.’ What is true can never be false, and what is false can never be true.”

Like Ryder, who has been nominated for promotion to major general, Kirby is a retired two-star admiral. Both men know that the protection of classified information is critical. But both men also know that their first responsibility is to tell the truth from the press podiums or leave the podium if they can’t do so without risking national security. Kirby’s excuse that the issue was too sensitive to discuss in any sense is laughable. He would have known the story would eventually come out. Why couldn’t he and Ryder have said, “No comment,” or “we have nothing to add,” or “the report isn’t entirely accurate”? Why couldn’t they have offered some other diversion? Top line: They did not need to mislead the public.

In doing so, they have undermined their own credibility and the Biden administration at large. And China is the only beneficiary of it.

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