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.”  

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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.

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.)

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