Romney Adviser Admitted Libya Flub Before New York Times Scrubbed Story

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Photo: Charles Dharapak

A front page New York Times article this morning describes how Mitt Romney "personally approved" his apology-less campaign statement yesterday accusing Barack Obama of sympathizing with terrorists, but an early iteration of the story was far juicier. In a version posted online last night, the Times quoted "an adviser to the campaign who worked in the George W. Bush administration" who went so far as to say that Romney "had forgotten the first rule in a crisis: don't start talking before you understand what's happening." That's more or less the criticism that was pelted at Romney throughout the day yesterday by pundits, and by President Obama himself, but to hear it from the mouth of an adviser, even an anonymous one, in the Times, really stings. Or stung — that quote has since disappeared from the article. 

It's common for newspaper stories to undergo edits throughout the day until a final version makes it to the morning paper, but in this case, the entire thing has been changed (except the URL), as displayed by the website NewsDiffs, which has both. The original version of the story, "Behind Romney's Decision to Criticize Obama on Libya," was credited to David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker, while the final product, "A Challenger’s Criticism Is Furiously Returned," is by Peter Baker and Ashley Parker.

The first public draft of the story also included the following explanation from a "senior adviser" to Romney:

“We’ve had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama’s foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique, that Obama really has been pretty weak in a number of ways on foreign policy, especially if you look at his dealings with the Arab Spring and its aftermath,” one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers said on Wednesday. “I think the reality is that while there may be a difference of opinion regarding issues of timing, I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”

A later version changed "senior adviser" to "one senior strategist, who asked not to be named," but today, only part of the quote remains, credited to Romney policy director Lanhee Chen:

“While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing,” Mr. Chen said, “I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner.”

Could this be that campaign quote approval we've heard so much about?

The final version of the Times story does include Republicans questioning Romney's judgment, but none affiliated directly with his campaign. Baker, one of seven reporters who worked on the story, told the Huffington Post, "As we reported more through the day, we found Republicans criticizing Gov. Romney on the record, so why use an anonymous one? There are too many blind quotes in the media and we try not to use them when it's not necessary."

But the on-the-record criticisms by Republicans — from an adviser to John McCain (a former Romney opponent), Representative Peter King of New York, and a generic Republican strategist — just don't carry the same weight as someone from inside the House of Romney, named or not. And the idea that the Times doesn't often rely entirely on anonymous sources, especially in its political coverage, is laughable. But Baker's first point stands: As the day went on, there were plenty of people, Republicans included, willing to question Romney's choice.