Secretary of State John Kerry suggested yesterday that Boston bomber Tamarlan Tsarnaev became a terrorist when he traveled to Russia in 2011: "We just had a young person who went to Russia, Chechnya, who blew people up in Boston," he said. "So he didn't stay where he went, but he learned something where he went and he came back with a willingness to kill people."
Of course it's not yet clear what happened on Tsarnaev's trip to Russia -- he may have had direct contact with terrorist groups there, but we don't know that yet. Does Kerry know something that hasn't been made public? Apparently not. Josh Rogin reports:
Both the State Department and White House press shops sought to walk back Kerry's comments about the elder Tsarnaev's Russia experience in their daily press conferences on Wednesday, saying that Kerry was not revealing any actual information on the case.
"The secretary was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism and not necessarily offering any more specific information about this case," Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday. "I'm clarifying his remarks and saying that he was simply expressing broad concern about radicalism. This isn't about new details about the ongoing investigation."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney urged reporters on Wednesday to set aside Kerry's comments in Belgium and wait for the FBI-led investigation into the bombings to run its course.
"Secretary Kerry was not reflecting any new information or conclusion about the individuals involved. He was speaking generally about the nature of terrorism. But we are in the process of an investigation. Those comments don't reflect any new information," he said.
This wasn't the first time the administration was forced to walk back one of Kerry's pronouncements -- or even the first time this week.
On Sunday, Kerry was in Istanbul attempting to promote a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. The groundwork had been laid during President Obama's trip to Israel, when Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a limited apology (on his own terms) for the loss of life aboard the Mavi Marmara when that ship ran the blockade of Gaza. "I know it’s an emotional issue with some people," Kerry said, refering to the 2010 incident, continuing:
I particularly say to the families of people who were lost in the incident we understand these tragedies completely and we sympathize with them. And nobody—I mean, I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence and something happens and you lose people that are near and dear to you. It affects a community, it affects a country. We’re very sensitive to that.
In light of the recent events in his hometown of Boston, Secretary Kerry was expressing his own personal connection to the impact of tragedy on a community and was not comparing the two events—only the pain caused by violence.
Ah, so parallels between supporters and victims of jihadi terrorism just happen to be the sort of things that come out of Kerry's mouth when he free-associates about violence. Got it.
Kerry's gaffe problem didn't start with the Boston bombing. Earlier this month he implied that the US might lower the bar for direct talks with North Korea; current policy is that direct talks are only on the table if the North Koreans take meaningful steps toward denuclearization. As Christopher Griffin and Bob Zarate write, the Washington Post report on the comment and walk-back reads like something out of the satirical show Veep:
Kerry said he was speaking "personally," and a State Department official said afterward that the United States has made no official offer of government-to-government talks.
"Our position hasn’t changed, and there are no plans to move toward direct talks, because North Korea has shown no willingness to move in a positive direction," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to clarify Kerry’s remarks.
Someone needs to explain to John Kerry that the Secretary of State doesn't get to speak "personally" about foreign policy.