It has been a tough month for spokespeople at the State Department. During the daily press briefing today State Department spokesman Mark Toner was unable to answer basic questions about the timing or details of a $1.3 billion payment to Iran despite the fact that the payment appears to be listed on a government website available to the public.
The settlement the U.S. agreed to pay Iran (over an old arms deal) was broken into two parts, a $400 million principal payment and $1.3 billion in interest. The delivery of the $400 million principal repayment was made in foreign cash on January 17 of this year. We’ve since learned that payment was made contingent on the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran. President Obama said it was necessary to make the payment in cash because the U.S. did not have a banking relationship with Iran that would allow us to wire the money directly.
Monday the Weekly Standard highlighted a significant development in the story at the New York Sun. The Sun’s Claudia Rosett found the remaining $1.3 billion in interest was apparently paid from something called the Judgment Fund in a series of 13 identical payments:
The 13 payments that may explain what happened are found in an online database maintained by the Judgment Fund. A search for “Iran” since the beginning of this year turns up nothing. But a search for claims in which the defendant is the State Department turns up 13 payments for $99,999,999.99.
They were all made on the same day, all sharing the same file and control reference numbers, all certified by the U.S. Attorney General, but each assigned a different identification number. They add up to $1,299,999,999.87, or 13 cents less than the $1.3 billion Messrs. Obama and Kerry announced in January.
Here’s the page on the Judgment Fund website showing the payments:
The Weekly Standard notes that the Judgment Fund website lists “electronic fund transfer” as its preferred method of payment. And yet all of these payments appear to have been made on January 19th, just two days after the cash delivery to Iran (and one of those days, January 18th, was a federal holiday). How is it possible that it was necessary to send the $400 million in cash but was possible to send the $1.3 billion in interest by wire just two days later? Couldn’t the cash delivery have waited another two days? Or was it because the administration wanted to use the cash as leverage?
Today, reporter Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked State Department spokesman Mark Toner about those payments from the Judgment Fund. “These transfers certainly appear to have been made by wire not paid in actual cash,” Lee stated. “If that is the case I’m wondering…why you couldn’t have paid the $400 million in the same way?” Lee asked.
Spokesman Mark Toner replied, “I’m not sure if I can give you a complete answer on that.” He went on to mention the fact that the U.S. did not have a “bank to bank” financial relationship with Iran at the time. Toner said he couldn’t speak to how the payment of interest was made.
Lee pressed the point saying, “But you’re suggesting that there might have been some change in your banking relationship between the 17th of January and the 19th of January that would have allowed this to…the 18th as I recall was a federal holiday.”
Toner replied, “I don’t know” and added, “And we’ve said we’re not going to talk about this.”
“This stuff keeps coming out, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip,” Lee said. “If the administration wants to put this behind itself it would seem to me that it would be smart to actually get an answer to these questions,” he added.
Toner replied there were “reasons for us withholding this information…to protect the confidentiality.” He would not even confirm that the 13 payments of just under $100 million were the interest payments to Iran, though he promised to look into it. Toner seemed to become a bit agitated at this point saying, “If you guys think that I enjoy standing up here and getting continual questions from you about the process here, I don’t.”
“It’s not you,” Lee replied, “It is this hell-bend desire to keep this stuff secret when it’s not secret anymore.”
It really has been a tough month for the poor, beleaguered spokespeople at the State Department. Maybe they should try lying to reporters less often and offering fewer insulting attempts at spin when they get caught.
The exchange between Matt Lee and the State Department comes at the beginning of this video: