Susan Rice and Benghazi, Take Two

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 15 2012 9:24 AM

Susan Rice and Benghazi, Take Two

I wrote yesterday that the central idea behind the McCain-Graham-Ayotte troika's anti-Susan Rice campaign was flawed. They say she did the Sunday shows on September 16 and said that the Benghazi killings were a spontaneous response to "Innocence of Muslims." I've been pointing out that she didn't quite say that.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Sean Higgins takes exception to this, by reprinting the relevant transcripts from that day. (One quibble with Higgins: I didn't "base my claim" on Kevin Drum's post about Ricegate. I've read the transcripts, and linked them in the past, and I resent the implication that I would ignore source material in a story like this.) They are here, here, and here. Here's what Rice said on ABC, with Higgins's highlights. I excerpt this because it's the best evidence for the claim.

But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to — or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in — in the wake of the revolution in Libya are — are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
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To make his point, Higgins need to overemphasize some phrases and under-emphasize others. "What this began as," said Rice, was "a spontaneous response" in the form of a protest. The protest, she said, was used as a cover for "individual clusters of extremists." The question really hangs on the issue of spontaneity -- and Rice, in a lawyerly way, differentiated between the "Innocence of Muslims" protest and the attack, saying that there was an "an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed."

Did Rice dodge the question? Yes. According to Eli Lake's reporting, "early information was enough to show that the attack was planned and the work of al Qaeda affiliates." Rice was asked whether al Qaeda was behind the attacks. She decided to avoid that question, and give this answer. But she was juggling other questions about ongoing protests that were being held in response to "Innocence of Muslims." Four weeks after Rice made her Sunday show rounds, the State Department admitted that there were no protests in Benghazi. That, to my mind, would be the most damning element of the Rice quotes, if it was proven that the State Department and intelligence community knew this and told her before she went on air. But like Hillary Clinton, Rice was responding to two stories in tandem -- the "Innocence" protests outside embassies, and the consulate attack in Benghazi.

Which brings us back to McCain. I'd given him credit for the original claim that Rice claimed the Benghazi attacks were entirely spontaenous. This was how he followed Rice on Face the Nation.

SCHIEFFER: The president of Libya says that this was something that had been in the works for two months, this attack. He blames it on al Qaeda. Susan Rice says that the State Department thinks it is some sort of a spontaneous event. What­­ what do you make of it?

MCCAIN: Most people don't bring rocket­-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration. That was an act of terror, and for anyone to disagree with that fundamental fact I think is really ignoring the facts.

It's great snark that shames Rice for not calling the attack "terrorism" right away. But we know that there was a considerable amount of confusion in the five days between the attack and the Sunday shows, and that at least one claim of a terror link fell apart.

There's more to say here, but Glenn Kessler says it much better. McCain's been claiming that Rice credited the attack entirely to a "flash mob" and that "everybody knew" that the attack came from an Al Qaeda affiliate. Rice never ruled that out. The questions: Was Rice accurately saying only what the administration had confirmed? If so, was this such an affront that Rice should immediately be blocked or filibustered from another job in government?

UPDATE: Higgins responds here, and ends with info neither of us had yesterday: The CIA's talking points for Rice. (CBS News obtained them.)

The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.

"I don’t know how anybody can interpret that as anything other than saying the attack itself was spontaneous," writes Higgins. But I see a difference from a "flash mob" attack, and a protest taken advantage of quickly by extremists who were ready to attack. And since we've gotten awfully far away from the point (my fault, probably), the point of the CBS story is that Rice really did go on the Sunday shows with information from CIA.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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