But how far off was Rice to talk about the video when compared with the information being put together at the time by the CIA, presumably the administration’s best intelligence source? Rhodes sent his email at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14. Nine hours earlier, the CIA had sent its first set of talking points. The very first line of the first CIA talking point reads: “The currently available information suggests that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex.”* (The original copies are here, released by the White House last May.)
What was causing the protests in Cairo that the CIA mentions? The video. If you said the uproar over L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was created by foul racism versus saying it was created by an audiotape, how significant would the distinction be? Here's what Rice actually said on Face the Nation: “Based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy—sparked by this hateful video.”
It may now be laughable for anyone to suggest that the Libyan attack was spontaneous, but that’s a question for the CIA, which made spontaneity its first and most durable claim that weekend. An intelligence failure is a different thing than a lie, and it should lead to a different set of questions about the underlying policy and skills of administration officials to accurately understand the world. You could also ask whether it’s possible to make good policy when engaged in one-foot-in and one-foot-out operations like the U.S. attack on Libya. But those are policy questions, not cover-up questions.
There was other intelligence during that period that suggested the attack on Benghazi was not spontaneous or linked to a video. Was that evidence solid enough that White House officials preparing Rice should have overruled the CIA assessment? Or was the evidence murky enough that it didn’t disturb White House officials rushing to put the best face on things for their boss? Answers to those questions are not resolved by this new information.
Over the course of Sept. 14, the Rice talking points were changed 12 times. Previous reporting shows the revisions didn’t come from the White House, which had signed off on the first CIA version, but from the State Department, where staffers were trying to do damage control for other reasons—reasons that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have to explain if she runs for president in 2016. Among the most incendiary claims removed was that the CIA had warned about attacks in Cairo before they happened. (The latest emails offer another account of what went on between the CIA and State Department.)
Also removed in the State Department’s rounds of editing were any references to potential al-Qaida responsibility for the attacks. Presumably this would have been a key target for whitewashing if Rhodes or other White House officials were consumed with altering the facts to protect the president. On the campaign trail, Obama had been boasting that al-Qaida was on the run. But neither Rhodes nor any other White House official appear to have raised it.
Finally, there are countless references in the Judicial Watch documents to the video that have nothing to do with finding an explanation for the attack in Libya. The video is at the center of administration fears of a regionwide conflagration. There is a frantic effort to distance the U.S. government from the video and the violence that officials think is associated with it, and of course to show that the president is on the case. Rhodes writes: “[W]e’ve made our views on this video crystal clear. The United States government had nothing to do with it. We reject its message and its contents. We find it disgusting and reprehensible. But there is absolutely no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence. And we are working to make sure that people around the globe hear that message.”
This brings to mind the old story about a man who wants to take a nap, but he can’t because kids are playing in the street. To disperse them, he concocts a completely fake story. He opens the window and tells them there are fresh, free oranges being given away down at the dock. The kids run off to get the delicious treats. The man settles back into his bed but finds he can’t sleep. He can’t stop thinking about how he’s missing out on those free oranges.
Could the White House have created the fiction about the video and then been consumed with managing the fallout from the video at the same time, like our man with the oranges? Perhaps, but there is also evidence in the documents for another explanation. The administration was practicing garden-variety self-deception: Administration officials, who came into office on a wave of skepticism about the quality of CIA intelligence, believed what their intelligence agency told them and what was in the president’s best political interest to believe.
Correction, May 2, 2014: This article originally stated that the first draft of the CIA talking points referred to “demonstrations in Benghazi.” The first draft referred to “attacks in Benghazi.” In the third draft, in revisions made by the CIA, it was changed to “demonstrations,” and it remained as such through the CIA's nine additional versions. (Return.)