What Did Susan Rice Know and When Did She Know It?
I have for months taken it as a given that she went on five Sunday morning talk shows and lied about what happened there. Did she?
Despite the facts that I have never bought into the tragic attacks on our consulate in Benghazi as a scandal* and that I’ve always thought it absurd that Susan Rice, the UN Ambassador—now about to be elevated to National Security Advisor—had any culpability for what happened there in any event, I have for months taken it as a given that she went on five Sunday morning talk shows and lied about what happened there. That is, that her declarations that the attacks that killed four Americans were a “spontaneous” outburst from a mob gathered to protest a YouTube video, were known to her, known to President Obama, and known to our intelligence agencies to be false at the time she made them but nonetheless trotted out as “talking points” for various reasons. Some of those reasons, such as protecting the lives of intelligence assets, even struck me as non-nefarious.
I don’t get my information from Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, Breitbart, or Fox News. Aside from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which is pretty much Beltway Conventional Wisdom, and the occasional episode of “This Week,” I hardly watched TV news when this was all going down and I get enough diversity in my Twitter and blog feeds that I should have a pretty good idea what the rational thinking is on these brouhahas.
Yet, several liberal foreign policy wonks whom I respect as honest brokers, notably Michael Cohen and Hayes Brown, have been pushing back today at that assertion and I’m having difficulty re-establishing the timeline this many months after the fact.
Cohen points me to an October 2012 WSJ report titled “Early Uncertainty on Libya Account.”
The night before Susan Rice went public with the administration’s assessment that the Sept. 11 U.S. consulate attack in Libya grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video, intelligence analysts were receiving new information that contradicted the account she gave.
Intelligence agencies soon amended their stance, but it then took weeks longer—until early October—for a new intelligence assessment discounting the protests to make its way into public statements from senior officials in the Obama administration.
Ms. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, based her statements that Sunday on intelligence agency conclusions that the attack had spun out of protests in Benghazi, fueled by anger over an anti-Islamic, U.S.-made video that had sparked protests elsewhere.
The picture began to change over that weekend, according to U.S. intelligence officials, in the most detailed account yet to emerge of a period that has been a focus of controversy over the Obama administration’s handling of the aftermath of the attack, which killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador.
Some intelligence came in on Saturday evening that contradicted the protest claim and prompted the office of the Director of National Intelligence to begin to question the agencies’ initial conclusions, intelligence officials said.
Despite their growing uncertainty, intelligence officials didn’t feel they had enough conclusive, new information to revise their assessment. Ms. Rice wasn’t warned of their new doubts before she went on the air the next morning and spoke of the attacks being spurred by demonstrations, intelligence officials acknowledged.
And Brown has a longish post at Think Progress titled “Republicans Still Smearing Susan Rice On Benghazi Talking Points She Had No Role In Forming.” But it doesn’t actually tell me why my position constitutes a “smear.”
On 16 September 2012–the day of Rice’s Sunday show tour, Doug Mataconis wrote a post titled “White House Insists Benghazi Attack Was Not Pre-Planned, Was All About A Movie” noting that “Rice’s account is completely at odds with the statements made by Libya’s Interim President, who said that the attack was a pre-planned terrorist attack” and observing that,
Given the descriptions of how this attack went down, the idea that it was a spontaneous attack that just happened to pop up on September 11, 2012 because someone in Libya found out about a movie supposedly produced by some guy in America that nobody had ever seen seems kind of hard to believe. According to reports, the attackers used Rocket Propelled Grenades and had established zones of direct and indirect fire designed to make it difficult for anyone defending the consulate to successfully repel them. That’s not the action of an angry mob. That seems to me more like the action of an organized and trained paramilitary force using the ginned up protests about this film as cover for their attack. There’s also the question of how exactly this attack happened to take place at the same time that Ambassador Stevens, who is normally stationed at the Embassy in Tripoli, was present in Benghazi. Its either a heck of a coincidence, or the attackers had some foreknowledge that he would be there. Coincidence strikes me as an implausible explanation.
Given the fact that the FBI team that was sent to investigate the attack has not arrived in country yet, it’s rather hard for me to understand how Ambassador Rice, or the White House, can be so sure that their theory about the Benghazi is at all accurate. It strikes me that it would be more appropriate for the official response to be that the motivation and nature of the attack are unknown and awaiting the results of the investigation. Otherwise, they’re going to be pretty embarrassed if it turns out that this was a pre-planned attack and they have to change the narrative.
In a 26 September 2012 posting titled “Report: U.S. Knew Benghazi Attack Was Terrorism Within 24 Hours,” Doug passed along a report from Eli Lake at The Daily Beast that,
Within 24 hours of the 9-11 anniversary attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, U.S. intelligence agencies had strong indications al Qaeda-affiliated operatives were behind the attack, and had even pinpointed the location of one of those attackers. Three separate U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said the early information was enough to show that the attack was planned and the work of al Qaeda affiliates operating in Eastern Libya.
Nonetheless, it took until late last week for the White House and the administration to formally acknowledge that the Benghazi assault was a terrorist attack. On Sunday, Obama adviser Robert Gibbs explained the evolving narrative as a function of new information coming in quickly on the attacks. ”We learned more information every single day about what happened,” Gibbs said on Fox News. “Nobody wants to get to the bottom of this faster than we do.”
On 29 September, in a posting titled “Is ‘Benghazigate’ Hurting Obama?” I passed on a The New York Times news report (not an editorial) from Mark Landler titled “Shifting Reports on Libya Killings May Cost Obama” and remarked,
I’m puzzled by the administration’s seizing so heavily on the “spontaneous response” meme, seeking to blame the attacks on Americans exercising their right of free expression, and continuing to do so even though they knew it was a terrorist attack within 24 hours.
Additionally, I think the administration quite understandably wanted to quell the outrage in the Muslim world over the video and make clear that the anti-Muslim sentiments in it weren’t representative of either US Government policy or mainstream American sentiment. But in doing so it failed at the more important task of helping Americans understand that the outrageous murder of their emissary to Libya was carried out by extremists, not ordinary Libyans. And that, just as kooks making hateful videos shouldn’t be how Muslims see America, neither should anti-American violence be seen as representative of how we’re seen over there.
As to Landler’s suggestion that this may all “cost Obama,” however, I’m deeply skeptical. There’s actually much to criticize here and in his foreign policy in that part of the world in general. But, to the limited extent that Americans decide whom to vote for as president on foreign policy issues, I don’t see how Obama is seriously hurt here. Especially since Mitt Romney didn’t exactly distinguish himself with his early reaction to the same crisis.
I largely tuned out of the Benghazi mess after that point because of Republican efforts to gin up a scandal where, at best, a kerfuffle existed. (That’s not to dismiss the four dead Americans; I simply have seen no evidence that their deaths could reasonably have been avoided while still maintaining a heavy diplomatic presence in Libya.) I tuned in sporadically to testimony by David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, and Gregory Hicks but they all pretty much confirmed my pre-existing notions.
Is there something that I’ve missed here? Is it seriously in dispute whether President Obama and Ambassador Rice knew that the Benghazi attack was perpetrated by terrorists at the time of the latter’s Sunday show appearances but nonetheless kept alive the YouTube and “spontaneous” talking points, even if for perfectly benign reasons?
Well, ABC’s Jonathan Karl thinks so. He has a piece out today titled “White House Benghazi Emails Show Susan Rice Got a Bad Rap.” I’ll quote him in his entirety here (but please click the link, anyway):
If we learned anything in all the back and forth over the Benghazi talking points – the 12 revisions first reported by ABC News, the 100 pages of emails released by the White House, etc. – we learned this: Susan Rice got a bad rap.
First, some background:
Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has now been tapped as President Obama’s national security adviser, came under withering criticism after she famously appeared on five Sunday talk shows Sept. 16, 2012, and proclaimed the attack five days earlier on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, grew out of a spontaneous protest inspired by the protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
That proved to be wrong. There were no protests in Benghazi. The incident started as an attack by a large group heavily armed men assaulting the compound.
But Rice didn’t invent the notion of spontaneous protest. And although she downplayed indications of an al Qaeda connection to the attack, that wasn’t her idea, either. Rice was the White House’s messenger on Benghazi, and although she was carrying a message that proved to be wrong, we know now that she herself had nothing to do with the crafting of that message.
It turns out that Rice’s comments did come from the now-infamous CIA talking points and, while those talking points were heavily edited, the White House emails suggest Rice had no part in the editing process.
All 12 versions of the Benghazi talking points, including the first draft written entirely by the CIA, use the words “spontaneously inspired by the protests.” That mistake belongs to the CIA.
The earlier versions of the talking points did include references to evidence that an al Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, took part in the attack. They also included references to earlier CIA warnings about the terrorist threat in Benghazi.
All of that was edited out. The emails released by the White House show that the deletions were made after State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland asked for those terrorist references to be removed.
But the first time Rice’s name appears anywhere ion 100 page of emails is at 1:23 p.m. Sept. 15, nearly two hours after the final edits to the talking points were made. Indeed, that was the first email about the talking points that went to Rice’s office. The last edits were made at 11:26 a.m.
In other words, you can blame the CIA for faulty intelligence on spontaneous protests. You can blame the State Department for insisting that references to terrorism be deleted. You can blame the White House for allowing those references to be deleted.
So, I’m honestly befuddled here. Everyone on the ground in Benghazi knew this wasn’t a demonstration over a YouTube video gone wrong from the get-go. Presumably, the senior members of President Obama’s national security team knew this by the morning of September 16, when they sent Rice on the Sunday shows. But, apparently, poor Susan Rice had no clue what the hell was going on? That’s, I suppose, plausible; the UN Ambassador has no reason to be clued in on what’s going on in Benghazi. But it’s still unthinkable to me that they sent someone who was ostensibly their top choice for Secretary of State—Hillary had long made it known she was out after one term—and sent her out to five Sunday shows to talk about a subject outside her comfort zone armed with talking points known to be highly questionable.
Or am I missing something?
*See, for example, my May 9 posting “Benghazi: Incompetence But No Cover-Up.”
i never brough into it as scandal either.
I refer to it as ‘crime’
Obama and company certainly provide a target-rich environment, dont they?
What law did she break? Be specific.
I guess with a record high stock market, real estate market roaring back, and unemployment continuing to fall, fake scandals are the only thing bithead can hang his hat on:
The U.S. government posted its biggest monthly budget surplus in five years as record revenues bolster federal finances and push off a drop-dead date for the debt ceiling.
The budget surplus was $112.89 billion in April, compared with $59.12 billion a year earlier. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast a $106.5 billion surplus for the month.
The federal government has historically run a budget surplus in April, when many Americans file their tax returns. The April surpluses disappeared in the years following the financial crisis but are now getting bigger, underscoring a shift in federal accounts.
The government is expected to run a full-year deficit of $845 billion for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. That would be the first deficit in five years below $1 trillion.
Spending is down a little. But the big reason for a narrowing deficit is higher revenue. Federal receipts reached $1.603 trillion through the first seven months of the fiscal year, the highest level on record for that period, a Treasury official said.
Quick, name a Republican President in the last 50 years who had deficits fall faster than they are falling now under Obama.
Oh, wait. You can’t…
Man, you just can’t resist when Bit comments, can you, anjin-san?
C’mon now, you know he’s not responding to anything that James said, but is continuing to flog the unsupported claim that someone in the US government suppressed support to the Ambassador et al while they were under fire. Why would you feed that?
Just let it go. You know you’re not going to get anywhere.
What you are missing, James, is that the intelligence agencies may have had their own reasons for the final draft of the talking points-reasons that the Administration is not at liberty to disclose. For example, the talking points made no mention of the active CIA presence there-something which Republican investigators have also been at pains to avoid mentioning.
We can speculate why the talking points were the way they were. Maybe Susan Rice was told to mention the possibility of there being a connection to the video, for various classified reasons. Or maybe she just screwed up and ad libbed it as a possibility. Frankly, as Hillary Clinton said, what difference does it make?
Maybe in future, the Administration shouldn’t say anything until its investigation is complete and it is 100 per cent sure of what happened and refuse to even give partial information of an ongoing investigation out to the press. Then you wouldn’t have right wing cretins criticizing the Administration for misstatements made during a fast developing story.
It’s been nice around here with bit more or less under his rock since the epic smackdown James laid on him a while back. The sooner he scurries back under it, the better.
@stonetools: Agree about the CIA presence being a factor in the administration’s public message.
I also suspect that there was likely some legit information about the video floating around that got incorporated into the intelligence analysis. Kevin Drum keeps linking to contemporaneous reporting from Benghazi stating that the video did in fact play a role in the attack, even if there were not “spontaneous protests.” It would be nice if James would acknowledge or comment on those articles as well.
Other than that, I really am amazed at how the Rs have managed to keep this nothingburger going for so long.
There is a difference between “being told” something and “knowing” it. In this case, it’s entirely plausible that multiple people had been told, but they are also likely told a number of other things that weren’t true, and multiple other people probably weren’t told, so as far as they know there was no new information. It takes times and effort to distill information into knowledge, especially when more than one person is involved. It seems pretty clear that that process wasn’t completed before Rice went on television.
If anything, this should serve as a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions before you’ve had a chance to gather and processes enough information.
My problem with Susan Rice is not that she supposedly lied. My problem Is that she needs f*”talking points” from third parties to talk about this subject.
Talking points are, by definition, meant for public consumption and hence are unclassified. The fact that the Libyan CIA presence wasn’t mentioned in the talking points is both unsurprising and irrelevant. Republican investigators are “taking pains” to avoid talking about the CIA in Libya. So are the Democrats and the administration. The reasons for the reluctance to discuss that topic are pretty obvious.
Kind of cool how Doug’s post on that day has stood the test of time pretty well. I do disagree with you though that she lied. I think the administration drank its own kool-aid – something that frequently happens when there is ambiguity in intelligence reporting. No one should be surprised that the administration settled on a preliminary narrative that fit its worldview. I don’t think that’s lying – it’s more like groupthink.
I think Rice was given some bad information for whatever reasons most of it not political. I worked in intelligence for several years in the late 60s and early 70s. To give misinformation to the enemy it is also necessary to give misinformation to the American people. It’s ugly and unfortunate but reality none the less. Misinformation is an important tool.
Or am I missing something?
Three letters: CIA.
You’re familiar with this organization, no? Then stop acting so naive.
There was a important point that no one noted: the Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb is not a group founded by Bin Laden. It was a group founded by Salafists that were former members of the GIA, an Algerian group that managed massacre hundreds of people in Algeria, and to hijack a French plane in 1994 and to bomb several times trains and the subway the Paris in 1995. Basically, Al Qaeda is a franchise, but that does not mean that Al Zawahiri or Bin Laden had any control over the group. And there is no proof that AQIM planned any other plot against US interests.
The AQIM sometimes manages to hijack or to kill Europeans, but French analysts say that the organization is basically dead. It was an unfortunate incident, but, on the other hand, they are not the same people that killed two thousand people in New York. So, AQIM is not a US responsibility, at least until last September,
Yes, the organization that sold arms to the Iranians in the 80´s, that failed to predict that Pakistan and India would do nuclear tests in 1998, that failed to predict 9/11 attacks, that went to torture people(To the point that many of these people can´t be convicted in the Courts), but that most people thinks that´s sacred.
To tell you the truth, I don’t think she knows crap..
@Andre Kenji: “My problem with Susan Rice is not that she supposedly lied. My problem Is that she needs f*”talking points” from third parties to talk about this subject. ”
Well, if she had been on these shows to express her own opinion, then it would have been pretty silly to use talking points. But since her role was to put forward the message of the administration as agreed to by all the various powerful parties, do you think she should have just made it up as she went along?
That’s the one, yes.
My problem Is that she needs f*”talking points” from third parties to talk about this subject. ”
Third parties? Seriously? Do you think Rice was in Benghazi that night, or do you think the UN ambassador has her own intelligence operation?
Well, she was the UN Ambassador, not a page nor the press secretary. Her role is to represent the United States in the UN, not to “put forward the message of the administration”. She is a diplomat, that should understand and know the region.
@Andre Kenji: OK, I think you just exploded my head with this comment:
She is supposed to represent the US but not put forward the message of the administration? What should she do, monitor Fox News and then just wing it?
You’re missing a lot.
On 9/12/12, Daniel Pipes wrote this in National Review (link):
At that point there was some confusion about whether the video was made by Terry Jones or someone else. But the important thing to notice is that on 9/12/12, Pipes himself, in the pages of NR, explained that “the anti-Islamic video … inspired this violence,” not just in Cairo but also in Benghazi. How inconvenient. If you can’t trust National Review, then who can you trust?
Aside from what Pipes said, there’s a pile of evidence linking Benghazi and the video. That evidence includes what the interior minister said, and what the AAS spokesman said, and what Nordstrom said, and what “the fighters said at the time.” Link.
Your article has over 2,000 words (including the words you quoted), but you mentioned none of this. And I’m pretty sure all OTB articles on this subject mention none of this. Why?
You cited Doug saying this:
Doug has on odd concept of “nobody.” The video was seen by millions on Egypt TV on 9/8. The Cairo riots started less than 48 hours later. Do you and Doug really not know this?
Knowing that it wasn’t “a demonstration” tells us nothing whatsoever about whether or not the attackers were motivated by the video. What you are doing is known as the fallacy of bifurcation. Link. This fallacy is a major feature of mainstream coverage of this story. That darn liberal media.
No, you’re just getting your information from people like Jon Karl of ABC. Too bad Karl has a long history as a right-wing hack. Link. Karl’s much-cited article had this headline:
Even though the original “Talking Points” created by the CIA used the word “terror,” in any form, this many times: zero. How is it possible to ‘scrub’ something that isn’t there? So it’s possible for CIA to call something “a terrorist attack” without using the word “terror,” but Obama flunks the test if he says “terror” instead of “terrorism.” Unbelievable.
And speaking of that darn liberal media, let’s also notice that Kessler has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to assemble a complete list of Obama’s statements about Benghazi. Link, link.
This post surprises me. I thought JJ read Kevin Drum’s blog, and Drum has been all over this. Rice was saying what the CIA-State talking points told her to say. Period.
What? That’s complete nonsense. Her role is to represent the government of the United States at the UN, and that government is the Obama administration.
Um, because she’s a diplomat, she’s supposed to know and understand what happens in EVERY REGION OF THE ENTIRE WORLD AT ALL TIMES, again without relying on any briefing or intelligence from others in the US government? Again, pure nonsense.
@jukeboxgrad: But Daniel Pipes doesn’t have access to the latest intel or to USG personnel on the ground in Benghazi. He’s operating based on media narratives.
@Anderson: For a variety of reasons, my reading habits have changed in recent months. I hardly read any blogs as blogs any more; I probably should get back to making a few daily stops.
Correct. The original CIA memo said this:
“The protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” is an obvious reference to the video, because those protests were undoubtedly about the video. Someone should explain why it was wrong for Rice et al to tell us what CIA told her.
OTB has posted many, many (dozens? scores?) articles about Benghazi. I’m pretty sure this many of those articles cite those words from CIA: zero.
And there was (and is) nothing from “the latest intel or … USG personnel on the ground in Benghazi” to indicate that the attackers were not motivated by the video. So please explain how you know they weren’t.
And the “media narratives” were based on facts, like what the interior minister said, and like what the AAS spokesman said, and like what “the fighters said at the time.” So maybe you can explain why all these facts are ignored by the many, many Benghazi articles at OTB.
And if Pipes later learned that his original claim was wrong, I wonder how he learned this, and I wonder why he never corrected his original article.
And I appreciate the fact that you responded, but you nevertheless ducked most of my questions.
JJ: understood; you have a lot to keep you busy. FWIW, Drum is what I recommend to conservative friends as the one liberal blog they should read.
Good question. Possibly the right wing wishes to preserve their belief in the War on Terror, and so cannot go too close to criticizing the CIA. It might be both easier and “psychologically comfortable” for them to put it all on a liberal black woman.
@Andre Kenji: “She is a diplomat, that should understand and know the region.”
And magically know what happened that night?
She was the administration’s chosen spokesperson on this issue. You can carp all you want about how she’s a diplomat — and we all know that diplomats are routinely allowed to go on television and say whatever they want, even disputing their administration’s foreign policy views — but the reason she was on these shows was to discuss what happened in Benghazi, and the only way she had to know about that was through the talking points agreed to by all the relevant constituencies.
Or did you think she put on her deerstalker hat, grabbed her magnifying glass, and sleuthed her way to a solution the night before?
Hooray…Florack makes an appearance!!!
And he is still nuts.
Thanks for reminding us JBG. Doug has pushed from day one at OTB a narrative that the maker of the video is some sort of First Amendment martyr unfairly persecuted by the government and that the video could NEVER, EVER, have anything to do with the Benghazi attack. This was always wrong. The initial reports were in fact that the militants were motivated by the video. We won’t know for sure , really until we capture and question a militant, but its 50/50 at least that the militants were motivated by the video. The MSM has adopted this narrative as well, which explains why the Republicans have been able to keep this BENGHAZI! nonsense going.
Indeed. The Republicans should be targeting the white male with the stars on his shoulders who was ultimately responsible for the talking points. They have studiously avoided doing so.
They should be investigating the CIA, not the State Department. But then the former head of the State Department is not the presumptive candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination.
Any person designated to go to the media in the middle of breaking story like this is going to be given talking points. Indeed, the last thing an admin is going to do is just send someone out to talk off the top of their heads. Do you honestly expect something different?
But she wasn’t sent out there in her generic role a diplomat. She was sent out to comment on a breaking story. I must confess it still strikes me as odd that she was chosen for that role. However, whenever an administration uses the Sunday shows to get a message out, it is quite coordinated regardless of who is sent out. This is manifestly obviously by just watching the same person on different shows on a given Sunday.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I’m betting she volunteered, because no one else wanted to do it.In retrospect, its now clear why people didn’t want to do it. She took a bullet for the team, and the NSA spot was in part her reward.
@stonetools: It may have also been a dress rehearsal of sort for SecState (which didn’t work out so well…).
@anjin-san: Well, now, since she’s been promoted to be National Security Advisor” and therefore part of Obamas inner circle and this under the protection of executive privalige, she can’t be asked about it any,ore, can she?
@Steven L. Taylor:
I’m pretty sure that @Andre Kenji’s larger point is to ask why did anyone think it was a good idea to send someone out to comment on this who was going to primarily rely on a talking points briefing to discuss the situation.
As you suggest in your second post, Rice’s background — at that particular moment — didn’t provide her with any real inside knowledge or special understanding of the situation. At that point, on has to wonder why even bother to fill the seat if you’re not going to have a relevant expert fill the seat.
In other words, you are unable to name this crime you allege she committed. I see you are still doing the “stupid on steroids” thing…
Republicans were right: Benghazi is the worst political scandal in American history!