The “Innocence of Muslims” Video That Time Forgot

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 2 2014 4:55 PM

The “Innocence of Muslims” Video That Time Forgot

Yesterday, appearing on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman and Benghazi talking points co-star Tommy Vietor gave the world a meme. Bret Baier was drilling Vietor about the words used in the talking point revisions.

"Did you also change 'attacks' to 'demonstrations' in the talking points?"

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"Maybe," said Vietor. "I don't really remember."

It was a clever question, because we have the emails now and know what got revised. A version of the talking points sent by the CIA to the White House et al., at 4:42 p.m. on Sept. 14 referred to "the demonstrations in Benghazi," which "evolved into a direct assault." That was before the White House suggested its final changes, none of which denied that an attack occured. (The argument was over whether it occured in the heat of a protest or whether it was preplanned and had nothing to do with any protest.) But Vietor didn't remember, and Baier dug in.

"You don't remember?"

"Dude, this was like two years ago."

There's the meme—Vietor is now a laughingstock on the right, for his errant use of the word "dude." It certainly has distracted everyone from another exchange, when Vietor insisted that Baier was ignoring how the "Innocence of Muslims" video really did inspire protests, and some of the administration's reactions were referring to those protests as well as Benghazi. Baier played a tape of President Obama's Sept. 25 speech to the United Nations, in which he said there's "no video that justifies an attack on an embassy." How could he say that, when we now knew that analysts were crediting the Benghazi attack to terrorists, not protesters?

"Washington has this collective amnesia about the state of the world at that time," said Vietor.

"People say you have amnesia," said Baier. "People in America would probably be talking about the Americans who were killed."

In a way, both men were right. The 2012 protests that were organized around the "Innocence of Muslims" video have been completely forgotten in the larger discussion about Benghazi. It's a little remarkable, considering how well they were covered at the time. Remember the Newsweek "Muslim Rage" cover? It was about those protests.

And there were lots of them. There were protests in Chennai (India), in Sanaa (Yemen), and deaths at both locations. From Kabul, on Sept. 14, Nathan Hodge reported that "Taliban insurgents attacked the U.S.-led coalition's main base in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, killing two service members, after vowing revenge for the inflammatory video that has sparked violent protests across the Middle East." The next day, al-Jazeera recapped more protests:

"Today is your last day, ambassador", and "America is the devil", some placards carried by the protesters said.
In Tunis, the Tunisian capital, two people were killed in clashes with the police as crowds scaled the US embassy walls and set fire to trees within the compound. An American school was also set on fire by an angry mob.
Crowds also gathered against the California-made film in Lebanon, where two people were killed, and for the second day in Malaysia, Bangladesh and Iraq. 

Even though the video wasn't the cause of the attack in Benghazi, word of the video got there. "A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him," wrote New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick in (what seemed at the time to be) a comprehensive December 2013 story. "Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet."

Obama's subsequent U.N. speech has become—to use an already overused cliche—the umpteenth "smoking gun." Sure, let's allow that the president referred to "acts of terror" the day after the Benghazi attack. Why, two weeks later, did he frame part of his speech around "Innocence of Muslims"? In an op-ed favorably tweeted by Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego Union-Tribune reminded readers that Obama's U.N. speech "suggested the attacks were a spontaneous outgrowth of protests over a crude anti-Muslim YouTube video posted by an American."

That's certainly how you have to read it if you forget that other attacks had broken out—after Benghazi!—in other countries. Obama began the speech by talking about Benghazi and the murder of Christopher Stevens, but went on to say that "the attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America." Attacks, plural; weeks, plural. In case that was too obscure, Obama went on to condemn what happened "in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world." 

He went on; the bolded section below is the part that Baier used in the Vietor interview.

There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There's no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There's no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan. 

So at worst—and it would be pretty bad—that's the president referring obliquely to the killing of Stevens with a falsehood. The kinder interpretation is that he was referring back to the other embassy attacks he'd mentioned throughout the speech. And Republicans are in no mood to interpret it kindly, or even remember that there were a bunch of protests actually inspired by "Innocence of Muslims," and that the foreign service scrambled to deal with them for days.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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