The White House National Security Council’s chief spokesperson on Wednesday backed off the NSC’s broad attack on a HuffPost article which detailed a controversial proposal for postwar Gaza that has been circulated inside the Biden administration.
The article published Friday, written by HuffPost senior diplomatic correspondent Akbar Shahid Ahmed, revealed a potential plan to restore peace in the Middle East by brokering diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia while funneling Saudi money toward Gaza’s reconstruction. Ahmed quoted multiple U.S. officials who described the proposal and shared doubts about its likelihood to succeed, with one official calling it “delusionally optimistic.”
But after the article gained widespread attention, the White House, which initially declined to comment, appeared to accuse Ahmed of fabricating quotes in the article: “This story is not true,” NSC spokesperson Adrienne Watson wrote in a statement on Saturday to Ahmed. “Quotes attributed to US officials are made up. It warrants no further comment.”
During Wednesday’s White House press briefing, NSC chief spokesperson John Kirby softened the administration’s attack on the article’s underlying credibility without directly retracting Watson’s statement.
“This wasn’t an attempt to question the journalism or to cast aspersions on journalistic ethics,” Kirby said in response to a question from the Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui (Siddiqui is a former HuffPost reporter). “I can see where some people might see that reaction and think we were trying to cast aspersions on journalistic ethics and procedure, and that was not the intent.”
Kirby’s comments followed days of heated exchanges with Ahmed and HuffPost’s senior leadership and widespread condemnation from the press corps.
Immediately after Watson accused Ahmed of making up quotes in his article, HuffPost Executive Editor Whitney Snyder demanded a retraction and apology.
“Watson played no role in my interviews,” Ahmed posted on X (formerly Twitter), noting the White House did not provide comments in response to detailed questions he submitted before publication. “They can’t actually dispute the story on its merits so they’re resorting to lies.”
Dozens of journalists and policymakers responded. “Utterly embarrassing, gross and unprofessional from @NSC_spox,” Chris Hayes posted on X, referring to the NSC spokesperson, in one representative example.
Since the article first appeared in HuffPost, reporting in other news outlets and remarks from national security adviser Jake Sullivan about normalization and postwar Gaza have corroborated key details of the article.
Kirby on Wednesday continued to dispute a single element of the article.
Ahmed reported that the proposal for Gaza’s postwar reconstruction has been laid out by top White House official Brett McGurk in a top-secret document that is circulating among national security officials. One official told Ahmed that the plan envisions Biden taking “a victory tour” around the region and that the document references a preliminary deal called “the Jerusalem-Jeddah Pact.”
“We don’t have a document that says those things,” Kirby told reporters at the briefing.
In a back-and-forth with the White House over the weekend, Snyder said HuffPost stands by “our source’s description of a document outlining a plan for a Gaza-related Saudi-Israeli pact.” He also criticized the White House for not walking back its initial statement, which he said “was a broad rejection of HuffPost’s entire story and an allegation that Akbar fabricated multiple quotes from multiple officials.”
After Kirby’s briefing, HuffPost reiterated that it stands behind the story.
“Akbar Shahid Ahmed’s reporting on Brett McGurk’s Gaza reconstruction proposal is an example of the thorough, well-sourced and high-quality journalism that HuffPost is proud to produce,” said Lizzie Grams, the spokesperson for HuffPost. “We stand firmly behind Akbar’s reporting and we appreciate the NSC’s clarification that it did not intend to attack Akbar or HuffPost’s journalistic ethics. We look forward to a full retraction of the NSC’s original statement.”