Gibbs Says He Nearly Quit When Pentagon Wanted Him Out of the Situation Room

Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary to President Obama, recalled nearly quitting his job after being told the Pentagon wanted to ban him from Situation Room meetings on the war in Afghanistan.

Gibbs also said he was not able to acknowledge the U.S. had a drone program during his time as press secretary.

“I remember at the very beginning of the administration – I know it’s going to sound preposterous but, you know, one of the things was ‘don’t even acknowledge – forget drone strikes – don’t even acknowledge that there’s a program that does this.’ You’re new and you’re freaked out about saying something that’s classified,” said Gibbs at the National Archives’10th Annual McGowan Forum on Communications.

Other panelists at the event included former White House press secretaries Ron Nessen (Gerald Ford), Marlin Fitzwater (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush) and Mike McCurry (Bill Clinton).

“Probably like the third day I was briefing, somebody asked me about a drone strike. I don’t have any information on that and I’m not going to get into it. It’s on the damn front page of the New York Times, right, because somebody has reported we’ve killed six people in a drone strike,” Gibbs said. “Yet, the press secretary to the president of the United States is not capable of acknowledging a program in which that even exists.”

Gibbs said he wishes he had said something about the drone program at the time.

“You can’t have somebody standing up there saying something like that while they’re reading the New York Times. It’s sort of preposterous,” he said.

During the Afghanistan review, Gibbs said the administration had about 12 or 13 mostly 3-hour Situation Room meetings to go “exhaustively” through the process.

“After the first meeting, Rahm [Emanuel], the chief of staff, came in my office and said the Pentagon does not want you in those meetings. They said they don’t want a political guy in the meetings – yeah, ever been to the Pentagon? I didn’t say a word,” he said. “I just reached over to my desk and I picked up my ID, because the one great things about being press secretary is all the Secret Service guys know you, you don’t have to wear your ID and I just picked it up and I said, ‘If that’s the case than take this and do tell me how it all works out.’”

“Are you serious? You were about to quit?” asked moderator Michel Martin of NPR. In response, Gibbs said he “absolutely” would have quit if he could not be in those meetings.

“You have way more information than you could ever say and particularly at a time – I mean, look, I’m sure there was then and there is now a safe in the office where you have to lock up classified documents,” Gibbs said. “You have to record when the safe gets open, record when the safe gets closed, there’s a lot that you get information on and I think if you have somebody who isn’t in a lot of that and can’t watch it and understand what you’re supposed to steer around then the whole job becomes sort of moot.”

McCurry said Clinton sometimes stopped meetings if he was not in attendance.