Judicial Watch, the conservative organization that has been FOIAing and FOIAing for an email record of the Obama administration's talking points from the week of the Benghazi attack, has obtained one that loops White House adviser Ben Rhodes into the conversation with advice about how to massage the story for the White House. Sorry, that was a boring lede—this is the lede you want.
Republicans say e-mails released Tuesday on the attack in Benghazi, Libya, include "the smoking gun" that shows a White House official urged that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest that never happened. The e-mails, obtained by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request, include one in which White House official Ben Rhodes lists "goals" for then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice to meet in explaining the attack and protests occurring across the Middle East that week to the American public.
The #Benghazi story is really tailor-made for the Vox version of journalism, the one with cards and updates explaining what new piece of information explains or debunks what previously understood piece of information. In this case, in order to consider the Rhodes email a "smoking gun," you need to forget the previously known timeline of emails sent on Sept. 14. Luckily, Time's Zeke Miller has left his timeline hanging around on the Internets, so I can add the Rhodes disclosure in bold text.
11:15 a.m.: The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,* having asked for talking points, gets a draft from the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis. It starts with this line, the one that would undo Susan Rice during her run through the Sunday shows: "We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. consulate and subsequently its annex."
12:23 p.m.: The CIA's office of general counsel adds a line about the "inspired by the protests" theory being inconclusive.
3:04 p.m.: The talking points are sent to relevant White House aides, including Ben Rhodes.
4:42 p.m.: The CIA circulates new talking points but removes a mention of al Qaida.
6:21 p.m.: The White House (Tommy Vietor, not Ben Rhodes) ads a line about the administration warning, on September 10, of social media reports calling for demonstrations.
7:39 p.m.: State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland objects to some of the language because "the penultimate point could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings."
8:09 p.m.: Ben Rhodes sends the "smoking gun" email, nine hours after the first draft of talking points from the CIA said that the attacks grew out of a demonstration.
Read that USA Today lede again. It reports that "a White House official urged that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest that never happened." And he did—hours after the CIA and State Department were urging that the assault on the U.S. consulate be blamed on a protest. Can we chastise Rhodes, in retrospect, for not being more skeptical of what was known? Ten years after George "slam dunk" Tenet's advice for a prior administration, yes, I think we can. But it's just lazy journalism or lazy politicking to blame Rhodes for a talking point that was fed from the CIA. The White House's shifty-sounding excuse, that the "demonstration" story line came not from its spin factory but from the CIA, remains surprisingly accurate. (And I mean really lazy. It does not take very much time to compare the new Rhodes email to the previously known timeline of emails.)
This is why Eli Lake has the smarter version of the story.
The Daily Beast has learned that these latest emails were only provided to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform two weeks ago, despite requests from the committee for such material that date back to August 2013. The committee received them on April 17, the same day they were received by Judicial Watch.
“Even as Congressional Democrats were calling for an end to the Benghazi investigation with false claims that everything had been turned over and examined, the State Department was hiding this e-mail and other documents covered by the Committee’s August 2013 subpoena,” the committee’s deputy staff director, Frederick Hill told The Daily Beast.
Hill added, “It is disturbing that this highly important e-mail showing a White House role in pushing a false narrative was only turned over after it was discovered by the Department’s FOIA office in response to a specific request. While he had promised cooperation, by hiding subpoenaed documents from Congress, Secretary Kerry is failing to meet his legal obligations.”
As happens so often in the #Benghazi scandal, the outrage is not the new information but the fact that the new information was "covered up." Had the Rhodes email been part of the 2013 delivery to the House investigators, we would have known, then, that the White House attaboyed the "demonstration" story one more time and urged that the administration's spokesflacks "reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness." (This is a major departure from most crises, when administrations try to broadcast fear and panic.**) How might the coverage have changed? We'll never know. Why didn't this email emerge then? Fair point, it really does look like the administration chose not to send every single email from the Night of the Talking Point, and that this one looked a bit worse than what was sent.
But it was largely redundant. The Rhodes email doesn't change that the talking point that blamed the attacks on a confusing demonstration, as part of the Arab world's reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims" videotape, came from the CIA.
*They were requested originally by Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, who has occasionally expressed chagrin at what a goat rodeo the whole story turned into.
**This is sarcasm.