The Washington Post editorial board is quite upset with “Republicans and conservative media obsessed” with the “phony” issue of the administration’s misleading public explanation of the nature of the attacks in Benghazi. In a lengthy editorial, the Post makes a haughtier and more condescending version of a complaint we’ve heard from others. So it’s worth a response.
The piece begins with a complaint that critics charged that “Susan E. Rice ‘willfully or incompetently misled the American public’ when she appeared on news programs Sept. 16 and described the attackers as having emerged from a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.” That argument is wrong, the Post avers, because “it was established that Ms. Rice was simply repeating talking points prepared by the intelligence community.”
That’s incorrect, and for an editorial devoted to much harrumphing that “actual facts don’t seem to matter much to the scandal mongers,” it’s an inauspicious start.
It has not “been established” that Rice was simply repeating talking points prepared by the intelligence community. While the IC wrote the original draft, the version provided Rice before her Sunday show appearances had been heavily rewritten following objections from the State Department. In an internal CIA email, an official from the Office of Public Affairs cited “major reservations” from the State Department and reported “we revised the document with their concerns in mind.”
In all, objections from Obama officials resulted in all or part of four paragraphs of the six-paragraph talking points being removed. That’s 148 of 248 words. These were not simply “talking points prepared by the intelligence community.” (The Post later implicitly concedes the point, when it asks: “So why were those talking points eventually edited?”)
Beyond that, even a cursory look at Rice’s Sunday show performances demonstrates that she did far more than simply repeat the scrubbed talking points. Instead, she offered a narrative that went well beyond them, built on misleading claims that an anti-Islam YouTube video led to the violence in Benghazi that evolved into an attack. “What sparked the violence was a very hateful video on the Internet. It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States.” None of the drafts of the talking points mentions a video. And aside from two passing mentions – once on a list of cables and once as a subject line of an email describing a White House meeting – neither does it appear in the nearly 100 pages of email discussions released this week by the administration. If the video were, in fact, the proximate cause of the Benghazi attacks, one imagines it might have come up.
So, the talking points Rice used weren’t simply “prepared by the intelligence community,” and the YouTube video she emphasized wasn’t in the talking points.
The Post continues: “This week Republicans claimed a smoking gun: emails leaked to the Weekly Standard and ABC, they alleged, showed that the talking points had been altered to remove references to al Qaeda and a Libyan jihadist militia as well as to CIA warnings before the attack about an extremist threat in Benghazi.”
Three minor clarifications before we get to the actual claim: If Republicans claimed a smoking gun, TWS did not. THE WEEKLY STANDARD did not receive or publish leaked emails. And we first wrote about the emails and talking points two weeks ago.
There is a simple reason that TWS and others alleged that the emails “showed that the talking points had been altered to remove references to al Qaeda and a Libyan jihadist militia as well as to CIA warnings before the attack about an extremist threat in Benghazi.” That’s exactly what the emails showed. Among the phrases removed from the CIA’s final draft: “al Qaeda,” “Ansar al Sharia,” “jihadists,” and “Islamic extremists.” Also excised: A bullet point about CIA warnings before the attack about an extremist threat in Benghazi.
After some more complaining about others getting facts wrong, the Post generously offers to help. “We'd like to point out a few of those facts.”
They begin: “First, it turns out that every version of the talking points, from the first draft by the CIA to the final one approved by a high-level interagency committee, contained the assessment that the Benghazi incidents ‘were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.”