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What About the Video?

The Benghazi email dump leaves some big questions unanswered

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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So, what about the video? The White House last week released nearly 100 pages of emails detailing some of the discussions within the Obama administration that resulted in major revisions to talking points about the Benghazi attacks drafted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Emails, schmemails—let’s move on.

Emails, schmemails—let’s move on.

KEVIN LAMARQUE / Reuters / Landov

From the beginning, there have been two big questions about the administration’s deceptive spin on Benghazi: How were the talking points whittled down to virtually nothing from the CIA’s original draft? And how did a previously obscure YouTube video gain such prominence in the administration’s explanation of what happened in Benghazi?

The emails fill in at least some of the details about the talking points. They also leave in ruins administration claims that White House and State Department officials were mere bystanders in the process. But how, exactly, the video became so prominent in the administration’s public rhetoric remains something of a mystery.

The new documents disprove claims by Obama spokesman Jay Carney, Hillary Clinton, and others that the White House and State Department had virtually nothing to do with rewriting the talking points. Carney maintained that officials from State and the White House were responsible for a “single adjustment” to the language. Clinton insisted that the intelligence community was the “principal decider” of what would be said. But the emails make clear that top White House and State officials played key roles in reshaping the CIA’s initial draft.

“The State Department had major reservations with much or most of the document,” wrote a CIA official from the Office of Public Affairs, at 9:15 p.m. on September 14. “We revised the document with their concerns in mind.”

An official with the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis, where the talking points originated, signed off on the changes but warned that members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) wouldn’t be pleased. “They are fine with me. But, pretty sure HPSCI won’t like them. :-)”

The emails make clear that many of the deliberations about changing the talking points—phone calls, teleconferences, and discussions—were not recorded. But a picture nonetheless emerges of officials keenly interested to avoid blame, protect their bureaucracies, and settle on a message that all could live with.

At the end of a chain of emails in the early evening of September 14 regarding the “concerns” of State Department “leadership,” Ben Rhodes, a top adviser to Obama on national security, reassures the group that all concerns would get a hearing. “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation,” he wrote. Rhodes worried about “wrong information” coming from briefings provided to Congress and argued “we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened misimpression.”

Rhodes doesn’t specify the “wrong information” that concerns him or what “messaging” problems the president might face. But in the days preceding the email members of both parties had begun to challenge administration claims that the attacks were the result of a mob gone wild. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had told reporters that the government had “evidence” the attacks were “pre-planned.” Adam Smith, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the same thing. Following an intelligence committee briefing, Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, said: “This was a coordinated attack, more of a commando-style event.”

Rhodes ends his email by advising recipients that the issues would be addressed during a Deputies Committee meeting the following day, one of several times the decisionmaking process appears to have gone offline.

That same evening, Jake Sullivan, the deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department, emails Victoria Nuland, the department spokesman, to inform her of conversations he’s had with Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. “I spoke with Tommy,” he wrote at 9:25 p.m., September 14. “We’ll work through this in the morning and get comments back.” In another, seven minutes later: “Talked to Tommy. We can make edits.” Another round of substantive edits took place during or after the Deputies Committee meeting the following morning.

Such exchanges between a top official at State and his counterpart at the White House belie claims from Carney and others that substantive revisions to the talking points came only from the intelligence community.

So, too, does an email from CIA director David Petraeus to Chip Walter, on the legislative affairs staff at the agency, after Petraeus was provided a final draft of the talking points that had been through the interagency scrubbing. “No mention of the Cairo cable, either?” he wrote. “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this, then.” Petraeus’s use of the word “either,” suggests he disliked not just the omission of Cairo but the removal of something else as well.

The Cairo reference is important for another reason. It is the first step on a long, circuitous journey to understanding why the CIA initially reported that the Benghazi attacks had been “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo” and how the Obama administration came to depend on that phrase in selling its narrative about a YouTube video.

There was an intercepted communication between two al Qaeda-linked terrorists, one of whom participated in the Benghazi attack. According to sources familiar with the communication, a jihadist in Libya, believed to be a member of Ansar al Sharia (AAS), reported to a more senior operative about his participation in the Benghazi attack. The AAS member mentioned having seen the Cairo protests earlier in the day before joining the attack on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi. (There is disagreement among analysts whether the jihadist joined the Benghazi attacks because he had seen the protests in Cairo or simply after he had seen them.)

The intelligence community knew about the communication within 24 hours of the Benghazi attack. It would serve as the basis for two claims in the initial draft of the CIA talking points—“spontaneously inspired” and “Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda.” The “spontaneous” language, which would prove dubious, survived the scrubbing process and was in the final talking points. The “ties to al Qaeda” language, which would prove true, was stricken.

That connection to Cairo, however tenuous, initially suited the purposes of both the CIA and the Obama administration. The CIA had warned about the possibility of protests in Cairo. An early version of the talking points included this bullet point: “On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy Cairo and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.” 

You can see the bureaucratic logic. It was all about avoiding blame: We didn’t specifically warn about attacks on 9/11/12 in Benghazi, but we warned about possible attacks at an embassy in the region. And by definition a spontaneous attack could not have been prevented.

The Cairo cable did not survive the interagency editing process. But the claim that Benghazi had been “spontaneously inspired” by the protests in Cairo would prove very useful for the Obama administration.

Jihadists did, in fact, demonstrate outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012. It took no great skill to predict this, as they had announced their intention to do so on Facebook in the days before the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As Thomas Joscelyn has reported, Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, helped plan the protest. Numerous well-known al Qaeda sympathizers were involved. They raised a black al Qaeda flag in place of the American flag and chanted, “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama.” An obscure YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad that had aired on Egyptian television days earlier was the pretext for the demonstration. It was, in the words of one U.S. intelligence official, “a classic information operation.”

And it worked. The agency’s attempts at CYA had given Obama officials an opening, and they quickly took it. On these thin strands, the Obama administration built its explanation for Benghazi. There had been a demonstration in Cairo. The leaders of that protest used a YouTube video to incite a mob. A Benghazi attacker had seen the Cairo protest. He later participated in the attack in Benghazi. 

A quadruple bank shot. And yet within days this previously obscure film became a central component of the Obama administration’s messaging on the Benghazi attacks. The Obama administration moved quickly to elevate the importance of the video. An attack that evolved from what the president would call “natural protests” by a mob over a video was a much better fit with the president’s claim that “al Qaeda is on a path to defeat” than assaults planned by al Qaeda-linked jihadists on multiple U.S. diplomatic facilities on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

Hillary Clinton mentioned it in her remarks at the ceremony to receive the caskets of the four dead Americans on September 14, regretting the violence “over an awful Internet video we had nothing to do with.” According to Charles Woods, the father of one of the officials killed in the attack, former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, Clinton told him at the same ceremony that the U.S. government would make sure the filmmaker was “arrested and prosecuted.” Pat Smith, the mother of communications specialist Sean Smith, reported that Clinton told her the same thing, “nose to nose.”

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., spoke for the administration on multiple television talk shows on Sunday, September 16, delivering variations on the theme that Benghazi was “a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video,” as she told Jake Tapper, then at ABC. “Our understanding and our belief based on the information we have is it was the video that caused the unrest in Cairo, and the video and the unrest in Cairo .  .  . that precipitated some of the unrest in Benghazi and elsewhere,” said Jay Carney on September 18.

Asked about Benghazi on September 20, President Obama referred to “natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video [and] were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.” It was one of several times he would cite the video.

Despite the centrality of the YouTube video to the administration’s public discussion of Benghazi, it goes virtually unmentioned in the nearly 100 pages of emails between the nation’s top intelligence and Obama administration officials as they reshaped the talking points provided by the CIA. The film trailer is included as part of a list on the first page of the documents and again at the very end, in the subject line about a meeting of high-ranking officials on Saturday morning: “SVTS [Secure Video Teleconferencing System] on Movie Protests/Violence.”

As the top U.S. officials discussed what to include in the talking points that would shape their case to the country on the attacks in Benghazi, the video was absent. Whose idea was it to make it the centerpiece? The Obama administration still has a lot of explaining to do. 

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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