Why the New Benghazi Emails Aren’t a “Smoking Gun”

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April 30 2014 6:19 PM

Lies, Damned Lies, and Garden-Variety Self-Deception

Why the new Benghazi emails aren’t a “smoking gun.”  

479917367-deputy-national-security-adviser-for-strategic
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes speaks as national security adviser Susan Rice watches in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on March 21, 2014, in Washington.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Has the Benghazi “smoking gun” been found? Some White House critics believe that new documents wrestled from the White House by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, prove that the Obama administration concocted a cover-up: Political advisers pushed a false story that the murder of four Americans grew out of a protest against an anti-Islamic video in order to hide a policy failure that might hurt the president in an election year. The documents clearly show that the White House pushed the video story, but there’s also proof that the White House believed the story they were pushing.  

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Were White House officials desperate enough to make up a story? Or were they just embracing and pushing the most politically beneficial version? That is the heart of the matter, but it also raises a larger question about what we call a lie when we look at administration spin: What is willful deceit, what is willful blindness, and what is merely the tunnel vision that comes from constant partisan warfare?

The Obama administration’s story has never been straight on the Benghazi attack. Press Secretary Jay Carney once said the White House and State Department had only been involved in changing one word in crafting the first public response about the attack—the infamous Susan Rice talking points. Emails released in May showed that wasn’t the case. This new batch underscores the White House’s involvement in shaping the story. The Obama administration left the impression that everything related to the Benghazi attack had been released to the investigating committees months ago. That is also clearly false. There have been other instances where the White House line on Benghazi has also earned it Pinocchios.

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On the theory that repeated false statements should initiate more questions, it’s obvious questions should continue to be asked. Also tantalizing is an email exchange in the current batch related to a Fox News story: “U.S. officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm.” The article was circulated among dozens of officials, including then–deputy national security adviser and now chief of staff Denis McDonough, but the subsequent email discussions are all redacted. When the Republican National Committee claims that the White House put “politics before transparency,” they are right. Still, that doesn’t prove that White House political hacks cooked up a story about a video. 

The “smoking gun,” according to Sen. Lindsey Graham and others, is an email from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. (Rhodes is the brother to CBS News President David Rhodes; I also work for CBS.) The email shows that the White House was engaged in a coordinated effort to cover the president’s backside. That is not necessarily new. They do that every day. Anyone watching Susan Rice talk about Benghazi knew that the White House, with an election just months away, was desperate to frame this event as an extraordinary and unpredictable one, not a policy failure. 

The key line in the Rhodes email is that the emphasis of team spin should be to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” He’s talking about protests, plural, because hell was breaking out all over the Middle East, and the leading theory was that an anti-Islamic video had helped stir it up. Aides were also directed to portray Obama as “steady and statesmanlike.” Later Rhodes writes that the goal is “[t]o reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”

So, the top White House national security spokesman, communicating to the public about a national security emergency, made covering for the president’s political fortunes his top priority. Bad. Spin and the instinct to protect at all costs rather than inform are pernicious instincts in this administration and those that came before it. Throughout the Benghazi story there has been a greasy effort to show both that the president is resolute, on the case, and a strong leader and that this wasn’t an act of terrorism that could in any way be used to argue that his policies were to blame. 

On Wednesday, Carney said that the Rhodes email had not been released because “this document was not about Benghazi.” I suppose it depends on what your definition of the word Benghazi is. The email is not about Benghazi specifically, that’s true, but the email was about preparing Rice for the Sunday talk shows, which came the week after an attack in which four Americans were killed in Benghazi. That was the biggest issue on the table. Protests in Yemen were not close.

The White House should not rely on super-literal word games. Although this explanation may be a defense against not releasing Rhodes’ email, it dooms the administration when it comes to the question of who inserted the “video” into the Benghazi conversation. The word video doesn’t show up in any of the emails from the CIA or State Department that were used to prepare Rice. Former CIA Director Michael Morell testified that he doesn’t know where the discussion of the video came from. So if you want to be hyperliteral, it’s obvious that Rice and the White House were the ones who emphasized the video, and that’s the end of that. Condemnation all around.

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