The Magazine

Benghazi Storytelling

Too many answers, not enough truthfulness.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The White House has had quite enough of the controversy over ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, the misleading talking points she used in TV interviews about the jihadist attacks in Benghazi, and the Obama administration’s contradictory narrative about those attacks. “There are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday shows and the talking points that she used for those appearances that were provided by the intelligence community,” asserted White House spokesman Jay Carney at his briefing on November 27.

Susan Rice

Newscom

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has also had enough. In a tweet that seemed to capture the feelings of many of his fellow commentators, Kristof wrote, “I’m sick of Republican intransigence over Ambassador Rice. Her misstatements were small potatoes. Time to move on.”

New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane is on the same page. In a lengthy “news analysis” on November 28, he dutifully amplified the administration’s line: Obama officials stuck faithfully to intelligence community-approved assessments of Benghazi. Yes, there were “honest mistakes,” but Republicans who complain are acting from political motives. “A genuine tragedy has been fed into the meat grinder of election-year politics.” His point was clear: Enough already!

A few Republicans also want to move on. Some of them are tired of being called racist for criticizing Rice. Others would rather discuss different aspects of the Benghazi debacle​—​the inadequate security before the assault, the failure to respond effectively during the attacks.

Those other issues are important. But the talking points matter, too. Less than two months before the presidential election, the Obama administration attempted to sell the American public a narrative about the assassination of an ambassador that they now acknowledge was inaccurate. Credible information that contradicted the administration’s preferred storyline was minimized or ignored altogether. And there was lots of it. Significantly, this is not the first time this has happened. The White House response after two previous jihadist attacks​—​the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009 and the botched attack in Times Square in 2010​—​followed a similar pattern.

Jay Carney is wrong. The administration has not answered even the most basic questions about Susan Rice, the talking points, and the misleading narrative top officials pushed in the days after 9/11/12.

In mid-November, several top intelligence officials appeared before Congress to field questions about Benghazi. House Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers wanted to know who was responsible for removing references to terrorism and al Qaeda from the initial unclassified talking points circulated within the administration. He asked the officials​—​Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and acting CIA director Mike Morell on November 15 and former CIA director David Petraeus on November 16​—​individually and directly. Each response was the same: I don’t know.

Four days later, the story changed. CBS News reported that Clapper had made the changes. This caused some confusion on Capitol Hill among members of Congress who had heard Clapper say that he didn’t know who made the changes. Six days after that, the story changed again. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that Clapper “did not change the talking points on Benghazi.” A spokesman for the DNI told Rogin: “It was not Director Clapper who personally modified the talking points” but someone in his office. The CBS story was changed​—​the talking points were modified after they had been passed from the CIA to Clapper’s team and then were edited again when they went to the FBI.

This new version of the story didn’t last 24 hours. On November 27, as Carney was insisting from the White House podium that all questions had been answered, acting CIA director Morell offered yet another account of the talking points story in a meeting with three senators. Morell was on Capitol Hill with Susan Rice as she met with three Republican senators​—​John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte​—​in order to answer questions about the administration’s handling of Benghazi. Several minutes into the meeting, following some sharp criticism of the administration from McCain, Graham asked about the edits to the unclassified talking points provided to Rice. Morell told the senators that the FBI had made the edits​—​an explanation that surprised his audience. When Graham asked him why the FBI would have made the changes, Morell had an answer ready: They did not want to jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation into the attacks. Graham was furious. He pointed out that this was yet another explanation of the changes to the talking points and asked Morell how referring to al Qaeda participation in the attacks would affect any investigation.

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