At his first press conference after being elected to a second term, President Barack Obama did everything he could to avoid directly answering the difficult questions on the growing scandal about his administration’s handling of the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. But in so doing, the president inadvertently told us quite a bit.
At one point he said: “And we’re after an election now. I think it is important for us to find out exactly what happened in Benghazi, and I’m happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants.” It was, of course, just as important to find out what happened in Benghazi before the election, but we should be grateful to the president for giving us this inadvertent glimpse into the role politics played in his thinking about Benghazi before he was reelected.
The president, perhaps realizing he had made a revealing slip of the tongue, went on to insist that he’d been providing information all along. But in response to a question about criticism of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the president slipped again. “For them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous.”
If Susan Rice “had nothing to do with Benghazi,” why then was she sent out to represent the administration in multiple television interviews five days after the attacks?
The charitable view: The White House wanted to see her in a high-profile position as something of a tryout for her possible appointment as secretary of state in a second term.
The less charitable view: Because Rice had no independent knowledge of what happened, she could be counted on to do nothing more than recite administration talking points. And because Rice had nothing to do with Benghazi, there was no risk that she would disclose just how much of the intelligence pointed to a coordinated, planned al Qaeda attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi. Instead, Rice’s misleading talking points suggested that the deaths of four Americans in Libya came as a result of a political protest run amok—a narrative that was almost as thoroughly discredited when she delivered it as it is today.
Those talking points were misleading not only because of what they included but because of what they left out. As The Weekly Standard first reported last month, the unclassified version of those talking points excluded the key fact that the U.S. intelligence community knew that the attacks had been conducted by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.
Here’s how we reported this on October 20:
One thing that has troubled both intelligence officials and those on Capitol Hill as they have evaluated the administration’s early response to the attacks is what appears to be an effort to write al Qaeda out of the story. For example, the [Obama administration’s] talking points . . . include this sentence: “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” But according to several officials familiar with the original assessment from which the talking points were derived, the U.S. intelligence community had reported the fact that these were extremists with ties to al Qaeda. That key part was omitted.
Why was that language dropped from the talking points distributed to Congress and Obama administration officials? Did anyone at the White House or the National Security Council have any role in drafting them?
Those questions remain. And there are others. The basis for the administration’s claims about demonstrations in Benghazi was a phone call between al Qaeda-linked terrorists. The administration built its unclassified talking points around a detail from that call, but stripped out of the memo any indication of affiliation with “extremists.” And why was this crucial detail of an al Qadea link taken out? It’s not that it wasn’t relevant. Indeed, if one were trying to provide an accurate picture of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, it’s hard to imagine a detail more relevant to the story.
And that might be the problem. Obama administration officials were not trying to provide an accurate picture of what happened in Benghazi on September 11. They were trying to obscure it. Notwithstanding the president’s claims to the contrary, it appears as if the goal of the White House in those early days was to hide the truth from the American people. That’s why you send out a spokesman who “had nothing to do with Benghazi.” It’s why you give her talking points that include a debunked story about a protest that never took place.
Is it why the crucial details about al Qaeda involvement were removed? That’s a good question.
In sworn testimony before closed hearings of congressional intelligence committees last week, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, acting CIA director Mike Morrell, and former CIA director David Petraeus all pleaded ignorance about who made the changes to the intelligence community’s draft talking points.
Petraeus spoke about the discrepancies in his testimony November 16. According to the Associated Press: “Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al Sharia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word ‘extremist’ in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.”
We are left with more questions. Who manipulated the CIA’s talking points? And why don’t Clapper, Morrell, and Petraeus know? Who decided to send an official who had “nothing to do with Benghazi” to make the administration’s case to the country? And when will the White House begin to provide answers?
As the president said, “We’re after an election now.”