New Emails Revive Old Benghazi Arguments
A new set of emails from the White House that were released pursuant to a Federal Judge’s order in a Freedom of Information Case is opening up arguments regarding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, including the argument many on the right have made that the White House engaged in a cover-up when it initially pushed the idea that the attack was related to or inspired by the protests elsewhere in the Arab world over the web video “Innocence Of Muslims”:
New documents obtained by conservative watchdog Judicial Watch reinforce that the White House strongly argued that an anti-Muslim video was the reason for the deadly 2012 terror attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi.
This was done even though intelligence and diplomatic sources on the ground were more convinced the attacks that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in eastern Libya were carried out by terrorists and not the spontaneous work of an angry mob.
The new documents can be seen here.
The documents were not included in the initial set of e-mails the White House released last May which show the interagency debate over talking points to go to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
These newly released documents include “TOPLINE POINTS” in question and answer form, prepared by the national security staff, apparently part of the briefing for Susan Rice, then the U.N. ambassador, in preparation for her appearance on Sunday interview shows.
During the debate over the talking points for Capitol Hill from 2013, Republicans argued that the administration removed specific terror references and stuck to an explanation – later proved untrue – that the attack was result of a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim film that was produced in the United States. There had been such a demonstration in Cairo.
These newly released documents clearly outline that the talking points for Rice emphasize blaming the video. An email from Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, from 8:09 p.m. ET, September 14, 2012, states that among the “Goals” for the prep session with Rice: “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
The context of Rhodes’ emails is, of course, that President Barack Obama was in the midst of a heated re-election campaign where one of his talking points was that he had brought a steady hand in fighting terrorists, indeed that “al Qaeda is on the run.”
The White House, of course, quickly sought to downplay the significant of the new emails:
The Obama administration Wednesday said recently released emails on the 2012 Benghazi attacks reflected what officials “understood to be the facts at the time.”
“In the email Ben Rhodes makes clear that our primary goals included making sure our people in the field were protected and bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice,” Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The content reflects what the administration was saying at the time and what we understood to be the facts at the time.”
“Unlike those who insist on politicizing the events in Benghazi, our focus remains on ensuring that a tragedy like this isn’t repeated in Libya or anywhere else in the world,” the statement continued. “In our view, these documents only serve to reinforce what we have long been saying: that in the days after September 11, 2012, we were concerned by unrest occurring across the region and that we provided our best assessment of what was happening at the time.”
Meehan’s statement also noted that the email stated that then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was not on the Sunday shows “to talk politics.”
Obviously, many on the right are seizing on these new emails as support for their assertion that, with the 2012 election less than two months away, the Administration acted to push the idea that the attack in Benghazi was related to an internet video in order to avoid the political damage that would occur if it came out that the attack was somehow linked to al Qaeda. After all, they argue, the President and his campaign had spent the better part of year touting the fact that they had done serious damage to al Qaeda and made it a big part of the re-election campaign, Joe Biden’s “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” was perhaps the most prominent way that idea was stated. Allowing the attack in Benghazi to be viewed as a revival of al Qaeda would potentially blunt that message and provide an opportunity to the Romney campaign in the crucial closing weeks of the campaign.
Take, for example, this from Victor Davis Hanson:
Even with the heavily censored and redacted recent releases of White House e-mails, one of the many messaging “goals” of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes (“To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy”) is the evidence that proves exactly what the White House so far has denied: the highest White House officials were in a pre-election frenzy to pressure almost everyone from the White House staffers to the CIA to massage the truth of how four Americans died in Benghazi in order to keep up a campaign-driven facade of a spontaneous video-driven riot, one that trumped the truth of a pre-planned terrorist attack, the possibility of which intelligence officers had on prior occasions warned about and were ignored.
These heavily redacted talking points reveal three truths that won’t go away: 1) the administration has lied about the reasons they promulgated false information that they knew at the time to be false; 2) the false, campaign-driven narrative that it was not a terrorist attack reflected prior laxity that they knew at the time increased risk, (and hampered proper focus on the true perpetrators, whose prompt arrest and capture might have negated their false narratives); and 3) they jailed a minor parole violator while falsely alleging that a video he had made had led to the deaths of Americans from an impromptu riot.
Charles Krauthammer said much the same thing last night on Fox News Channel:
Krauthammer’s right that what we have here was obvious all along: On the totality of the evidence, the White House took the intelligence community and diplomatic community’s estimate, which was relatively uncertain, bereft of much detail, and turned out days later to be quite wrong, and played up certain parts of it to avoid questions about their counterterror strategy and the situation in Libya. That isn’t being as straightforward with the American public as they could or probably should have been; it’s also not a lie or a cover-up. Whether what we have adds up to the “serious offense” Krauthammer calls it is a subjective judgment — what’s not subjective is the facts we have.
This strikes me as a largely correct interpretation of not just the new emails but the entire Benghazi “scandal” itself. As I noted myself during the initial week or so after the attack and the months afterward, the White House certainly did bungle the initial public statements regarding the attack. Instead of saying, for example, that investigations were ongoing and that it was too early to say what or who inspired the attack, which seems like the logical course of action, the Administration decided to emphasize a video that nobody in the United States had ever heard of prior to September 11, 2012. As more information came out, that initial assessment seemed to be incomplete to say the least. These new emails suggest that the Administration chose to emphasize the video over other evidence that was available to it, and as the author of the piece linked above says, that was probably not as straightforward as they should have been under the circumstances. However, to jump from that to the argument that there was a cover-up here simply isn’t supported by the evidence.
More importantly, as David Weigel notes in his piece on the new emails, the White House based its talking points, which emphasized the role of protests over the video in the lead-up to the attack, on talking points prepared by the CIA:
Read that USA Today lede again. It reports that “a White House official urged that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest that never happened.” And he did—hours after the CIA and State Department were urging that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest. Can we chastise Rhodes, in retrospect, for not being more skeptical of what was known? Ten years after George “slam dunk” Tenet’s advice for a prior administration, yes, I think we can. But it’s just lazy journalism or lazy politicking to blame Rhodes for a talking point that was fed from the CIA. The White House’s shifty-sounding excuse, that the “demonstration” story line came not from its spin factory but from the CIA, remains surprisingly accurate. (And I meanreally lazy. It does not take very much time to compare the new Rhodes email to the previously known timeline of emails.)
It seems difficult to credibly accuse the Administration of a politically motivated cover-up when the talking points that they gave to Susan Rice before her now infamous appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows were essentially the same information that the CIA had provided. Again, one can make a good argument that the Administration should have been more straightforward in its initial comments in the wake of the attack, or that they should have just refused detailed comment until further intelligence was received, but that’s a far cry from a political scandal.
It was Charles Krauthammer himself you said earlier this month that Benghazi was dead as a scandal, so his comments now, along with those of others on the rights just reek of desperation at this point. At I noted at the time of that initial Krauthammer comment, there were indeed legitimate questions that could have been asked in the wake of the attack in Benghazi regarding embassy security, CIA activity in Benghazi, and the overall U.S. policy toward Libya. However, instead of pursuing those questions the GOP went off on a witch hunt for a scandal that quite obviously does not exist. Now, with these new emails, they undoubtedly believe that they’ve got something that they can use not only against the Obama Administration but also against Hillary Clinton when she runs for President. If the way that they’ve handled this story over the past two years is any indication, it’s likely that they will fail miserably in that attempt as well.