Obama’s Benghazi Problem Won’t Be Going Away Any Time Soon
The revelation yesterday about the significant changes made to talking points drafted in the wake of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi last September has placed the White House in a very difficult political position and is generating negative reactions even from corners that would ordinarily be defending the Obama Administration:
WASHINGTON — A long-simmering dispute over the White House’s account of the deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, flared up on Friday, with a disclosure of e-mails that show the White House was more deeply involved in revising talking points about the attack than officials have previously acknowledged.
The e-mails, which the administration turned over to Congress, show the White House coordinating an intensive process with the State Department, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and other agencies to obtain the final version of the talking points, used by Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, in television appearances after the attack.
The State Department, in particular, pushed to remove references to Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militant group suspected of carrying out the attack as well as warnings about other potential terrorist threats from the C.I.A., which drafted the initial talking points.
Ms. Rice was later harshly criticized as having misled the public about the nature of the attack in her television appearances. For Republicans and other critics, the talking points have become a potent symbol of the Obama administration’s mishandling of the incident, even if they constitute only a part of the broader issues, from embassy security to intelligence gathering, that were raised by the attack.
The e-mails — initially disclosed in a report last month by House Republicans that was expanded on by The Weekly Standard, the conservative magazine, and on Friday in further detail by ABC News — had the White House scrambling to provide an explanation.
Early in the afternoon, it summoned reporters for a briefing by legal and political advisers who, under the ground rules, could not be identified. In that session, the White House asserted that the talking points were not modified for political reasons and noted that they had originally been prepared at the request of Congress. They said frequent, even exhaustive revision of talking points was routine at the White House.
Officials stuck to their contention that the only wording change the White House made was to change the description of the Benghazi annex from a consulate to a diplomatic post. Indeed, the e-mails do not reveal major new details about the attack or other discrepancies in the administration’s evolving account of it.
But when the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, arrived for his on-camera briefing later in the day, he was questioned repeatedly on whether he or the administration deliberately misled reporters last fall about the changes in the talking points.
Mr. Carney expressed no regrets and asserted that the C.I.A. rewrote the talking points, although the e-mails made clear that happened only after other agencies, including the State Department, weighed in.
“I do stand by that,” Mr. Carney said of his statement that the White House changed only a word or two to make clear the diplomatic post in Benghazi was not referred to as a consulate. “White House involvement in the talking points was very limited and nonsubstantive.”
But in at least one briefing last fall, Mr. Carney said both the White House and the State Department collectively made just one change, in contradiction to the e-mails that show much more substantive revisions proposed by the State Department.
“The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two, of these two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility,’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate,” Mr. Carney said on Nov. 28.
Mr. Carney said the reason changes were made was to make sure the talking points did not go further than what was definitively known at the time. He accused the Republicans of waging a partisan attack on the White House. “There’s an ongoing effort to make something political out of this,” he said.
Signalling the potential trouble that lies ahead for the White House, journalists are reacting critically to the news about the revisions that were made to the talking points and the Administration’s attempts to explain what was going on in those days in mid-September 2012. National Journal‘s Ron Fournier, for example, argues that the incident has the potential to damage the long term credibility of the Administration:
The White House has long maintained that the talking points were drafted almost exclusively by the CIA, a claim that gave cover to both President Obama and his potential successor, [then Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton. “Those talking points originated from the intelligence community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in November, adding that the only editing by the White House or the State Department was to change the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility.” The emails prove him wrong. Significant edits to the talking points were discussed at the White House the day before Rice’s appearance on five Sunday shows, said the official familiar with Nuland’s thinking, who added that she did not attend the meeting. As I wrote yesterday (“Why Benghazi is a Blow to Obama and Clinton”), Obama has earned the trust of most Americans but credibility is a fragile thing.
In The New Yorker, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, Alex Koppleman argues much the same thing and points out that the very fact that the talking points were so heavily edited is at the heart of why the White House now finds itself in such a difficult position:
Democrats will argue that the editing process wasn’t motivated by a desire to protect Obama’s record on fighting Al Qaeda in the run-up to the 2012 election. They have a point; based on what we’ve seen from Karl’s report, the process that went into creating and then changing the talking points seems to have been driven in large measure by two parts of the government—C.I.A. and State—trying to make sure the blame for the attacks and the failure to protect American personnel in Benghazi fell on the other guy.
But the mere existence of the edits—whatever the motivation for them—seriously undermines the White House’s credibility on this issue.
One way that you can see that Fournier and Koppleman are right is the fact that the story itself is actually being covered. Until now, the entire controversy surrounding the attack in Benghazi and the Administration’s response is something that was largely limited to the conservative side of the aisle. It received extensive coverage on Fox News, on talk radio, and in the conservative blogosphere, but other than the testimony that Hillary Clinton gave on the issue prior to her departure from Foggy Bottom, you didn’t see the national media covering the story much at all. Part of that, I think, is because reporters didn’t really think there was much of a story there based on the information being given to them by the Administration. With yesterday’s revelations, though, it’s arguably beginning to seem to these reporters that there’s more to the story than they’d been led to believe. That’s going to cause them to keep digging, and it’s going to guarantee that this story stays around for quite a bit longer. That’s why, a Chris Cillizza noted yesterday, the Benghazi story has quickly turned into a perfect political storm for Republicans:
Why? Because, wherever you come down on the policy debate surrounding the attack, the politics of demanding more information and answers about what happened are an absolute slam dunk for Republicans seeking to show their base a willingness to hold President Obama accountable.
It’s a sort of perfect political storm for the Republican base. And GOP politicians — particularly those with an eye on bolstering their conservative bona fides in advance of contested primaries — know it well.
The simple fact is that Republican base voters not only dislike President Obama but have a deep distrust of how his Administration handles virtually all of its business. Not only is Benghazi a confluence of both of those realities but it also involved Clinton, who is widely regarded as the frontrunner to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 if she decides to run.
Whether Benghazi has staying power as an issue all the way until average voters start paying attention to the presidential race sometime in 2015 (or early 2016) is anyone’s guess. And much depends on whether Republicans can use the accountability argument to raise broader questions about Obama’s (and, by inference, Democrats’) commitment to transparency and competence.
For the foreseeable future — at least — expect to hear a lot more about Benghazi both on Capitol Hill and in places like Iowa (where Rand Paul is visiting), New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Right now, the Obama Administration is getting a lesson in the reality of the Washington scandal. It’s true that there’s no evidence of illegality here, and the suggestions made by some, most recently Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, that the Benghazi story will somehow lead to the President’s impeachment are utterly absurd. However, political scandals aren’t just limited to things that might be potentially or actually illegal, they can also end up covering something that’s perfectly legitimate but which have an air of impropriety or which suggest that the politician in question has something to hide. The old saying in Washington, allegedly stretching back to Watergate but I’m sure it has an earlier origin than that, is that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.” The better way of putting this, I think, is that a Washington scandal can develop in two ways. The first and most obvious is when there is actual evidence of wrongdoing or illegality. Watergate falls into this scandal as does Iran-Contra since both involved situations in which actual laws were broken, or at least stretched to the very limits of credible legality. However, as we’ve seen, politicians can get in trouble for doing something that is perfectly legal. It happened to Bill Clinton, who got in trouble not because he had a rather stupid sexual relationship with a 20-something White House Intern, but because he sought to conceal that activity on numerous occasions. The same is true of former Congressman Anthony Weiner last year and Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.
NPR makes this excellent point in their story about yesterday’s revelations:
Whether Benghazi will ever become the sort of scandal that outrages the nation as a whole remains to be seen. Much will depend on finding evidence of malicious intent to deceive on the part of the administration, as opposed to individuals following an apparently irresistible impulse to try to put the best face on a confusing and dangerous situation.
But now reporters are on the hunt for willful wrongdoing. Every email and document that comes out will be carefully scrutinized.
And, as in previous scandals, any attempt to control the story and cover tracks will look worse in hindsight, once more is known.
“There’s a process that happens when the opposition party and the media latch on to a story jointly,” Nyhan says. “That’s when a scandal story starts to take off.”
Politicians get in trouble when they seek to conceal something that was politically or personally embarrassing, and the facts that are coming out right now make it at least appear that this is what the Obama Administration was doing in the early days of the response to the Benghazi attack. Yesterday’s revelations about the edits made to the September talking points only tend to reinforce that idea. For better or worse, that has become the story and it’s most likely going to continue increasing the pressure on the Administration now that the mainstream press is paying attention to it. This story isn’t going to lead to Barack Obama’s impeachment, that’s just silly, but it is going to stay in the news cycle for a significant period of time now, and that’s going to put the Administration on the defensive for the foreseeable future. There will likely be more Congressional investigations and more committee hearings, and the media is going to cover them largely because there won’t be much else to cover in the coming months. Whether that ends up weakening the President politically remains to be seen, but I think it’s foolish to dismiss this as a nothing story at this point.