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.
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.
Within hours, the story changed again. The CIA notified the GOP senators that Morell had been wrong and that the changes to the language about al Qaeda had been made by the CIA and not the FBI.
All of which raises the question: How is it that Morell, who accompanied Rice precisely so that he could provide an authoritative account of what had happened, didn’t know? Another problem: The latest version contradicts Petraeus, who had testified that the reference to al Qaeda that was in the version he approved was only taken out after the CIA passed them along.
That’s five changes to the story about the talking points in two weeks—and we still have a glaring contradiction between the testimony of the former CIA director and the latest claims from his replacement.
The reasons Obama officials have given for the edits have changed, too. At first we were told that al Qaeda references were excised because the links were thought to be “tenuous”—despite the fact that one of the pieces of intelligence supporting the al Qaeda ties was an intercepted phone call. Perhaps mindful of that evidence, we were later told that mentioning al Qaeda in the unclassified talking points could jeopardize sources and methods. Then came Morell’s contention that the FBI didn’t want to compromise an investigation and, following that, the current claim that we didn’t want to tip off the attackers that we were on to them by publicly assigning them responsibility.
When I asked a former senior intelligence official about that possibility, he said: “Nobody who can spell the word ‘intelligence’ believes that for a second.” A U.S. official investigating Benghazi was more blunt: “Complete bullshit.”
Senator Bob Corker, a top Republican on the Foreign Relations committee, met with Rice and Morell last week. The meeting, he says, “was a terse conversation, a direct conversation.” His questions remain unanswered. “I was in Libya after the attacks,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with our [CIA] station chief on that trip. He told me that he was communicating with Washington in real-time and said immediately that this was a terrorist attack that was probably carried out by al Qaeda and its affiliates.” He says the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli told him the same thing. (The Associated Press reported earlier that the CIA station chief sent a cable to Washington fingering Ansar al Sharia and possibly Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.)
The classified reporting, available to Rice before her September 16 TV appearances, “was filled with information about al Qaeda involvement” in the attacks, says one congressional Republican. “If she read any of that material, she knew.”
So why did Rice speak of a “spontaneous protest” sparked by a “hateful video”? Why was information about the involvement of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists kept out of the administration’s public narrative? Good question. It’s happened before.
When the FBI questioned Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab after his failed attempt to bring down a jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, he offered abundant detail about his links to terrorists. The Washington Post reported on December 26 that “federal officials have strongly suggested to lawmakers that the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight has connections with the al Qaeda terrorist network in Yemen.” The paper quoted Jane Harman, a California Democrat who was then chair of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence. She said she’d been briefed about “strong suggestions of a Yemen-al Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace.” And yet two days after the story was published, on December 28, when President Obama first spoke to the country about the attacks, he suggested Abdulmutallab was “an isolated extremist.”
When Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV in Times Square five months later, administration officials at first attempted to downplay the incident and his ties to jihadists. Speaking the day after the attack on Sunday talk shows, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, claimed that Shahzad’s attack was a “one-off” event and that he didn’t have ties to terrorist networks. But U.S. intelligence had information immediately demonstrating Shahzad’s ties to the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda—something the administration would acknowledge several days later.
Is it possible that Janet Napolitano, the administration’s representative, hadn’t been informed about Shahzad’s ties to the Pakistani Taliban before she claimed his attack was a “one-off”? The intelligence community knew, and the information had been reported publicly, but the fact that she appeared just one day later makes a communication failure plausible. What about the president? Is it possible he was unaware of Abdulmutallab’s ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when he spoke three days later and called the terrorist an “isolated extremist”?
And Rice? She addressed the country five days after the Benghazi attacks, at a time when the classified reporting was filled with information about the al Qaeda ties of the attackers. Was it another failure to communicate? Or was she sent out to sell a story she knew wasn’t true?
“She was far too ready to go on and be a political operative,” says Corker. Rice’s appearance came a little more than a week after the Democratic convention, where speaker after speaker praised the president for crippling al Qaeda and bringing the war on terror to an overdue end.
As Obama said himself: “We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.”
How would it look if a group “on the path to defeat” staged a sophisticated attack that took the life of a U.S. ambassador? Not great. We end, then, where we started—with lots of questions. Who wrote the talking points? Who edited them? Why? And why have top U.S. officials had so much trouble simply telling us what happened? The truth is rarely so complicated.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.