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.
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.