The complexity of Washington scandals as they unfold usually involves many moments at which it is possible to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Two such instances have come into sharper relief in recent weeks. One is that we still have no good explanation for U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points for her round of talk show appearances the Sunday after the 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. A second is that focusing on the question of whether the loss of four lives there could have been avoided is actually a clever diversion from a serious inquiry into the adequacy of the response to the crisis as it unfolded.
Thanks to the solid reporting of The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes among others, we now have a pretty good picture of how the CIA-prepared “talking points” about the events in Benghazi evolved. A document that initially fingered extremist Islamist groups eventually transmogrified into pabulum that would not contradict Rice’s storyline about an attack triggered by protests over an anti-Islam movie trailer. The White House was heavily involved in brokering the interagency catfight provoked by the CIA’s ham-handed exercise in blame deflection.
What we still lack, more than eight months later, is an adequate account of why Rice came to seize tenaciously on the film trailer, which had served as a pretext for earlier demonstrations in Cairo, as the best explanation for what was already known to have been a coordinated attack by jihadists on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
From the hundred pages of redacted email printouts the administration finally released, however, it looks like we do now know of a document that might hold some answers, though we do not yet know its contents. Someone with the United States U.N. mission sent Rice and her deputy an email at 1:23 p.m. on Saturday, September 15, the day before she made the rounds of the Sunday shows, with the subject line “SBU[Sensitive But Unclassified]/CLOSEHOLD: 0800 SVTS [Secure Video Teleconferencing System] on Movie Protests/Violence.” The content of the email, redacted from the beginning for more than a page, then shows a one-word heading “Libya:” followed by another redacted passage and then a paragraph concerning the origin of the request for talking points, which came from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But the subject line suggests that Rice was being briefed that morning on the connection between the movie trailer and “Protests/Violence” in Libya and elsewhere.
Of course administration officials had been talking about such a Benghazi connection for days, perhaps making a leap of faith as a result of the Cairo protests. At some early point, however, certainly before Rice went on TV Sunday morning, the administration knew better. There were, after all, no protests or demonstrations in Benghazi, just a coordinated attack. It is manifestly clear that while Rice saw the meaningless blather that ended up going to the House Intelligence Committee, those were not her talking points. Otherwise she would have stuck to meaningless investigation-is-ongoing, hold-the-perpetrators-to-account blather herself. Instead, she peddled the movie-trailer line.
Two days later, the State Department spokesperson said, “Ambassador Rice was speaking on behalf of the government with regard to our initial assessments.” Right. But the initial assessments tracing the Benghazi attack to the Cairo demonstrations and the movie trailer were wrong. The question with regard to Rice’s credibility is whether she or anybody involved in preparing her for the Sunday shows knew or had indication that the initial assessments were wrong. Finding out what else this email had to say about Libya would be a good start.
Ultimately, the detailed course of untangling the talking points may be serving as a distraction from a deeper issue: Did the officials consulted in the course of the hectic hours of the attack do everything they could to try to save the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans in danger?