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.”
That is true. But it’s at least worth noting that the Post can trumpet it now in large part because of reporting done by the “conservative media…obsessed” with Benghazi.
The editorial continues: “Those Cairo demonstrations were triggered by reports of the anti-Muslim video.” That is far from an established fact. The Post is conflating the cause with the pretext. It’s a subtle but important distinction and one many intelligence analysts have made since the days immediately following the attack. As Tom Joscelyn of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has explained, there is evidence that individuals with strong ties to al Qaeda and its leadership planned the Cairo demonstrations days in advance of the actual protests. This group included Mohamad Zawahiri, brother of Ayman al Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the group’s emir. An intelligence official told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the demonstration was “a classic information operation,” with the video as the pretext for the assaults on U.S. diplomatic facilities.
The Post goes on: “Second, the email record makes clear that the talking points were not prepared for Ms. Rice but for a Democratic House member who requested them so that he could know what he could tell the press.” That’s true, and also something TWS reported previously. But it’s unclear how that’s relevant. After Obama officials helped revise the talking points, they gave them to her. And judging from the emails, she was in a hurry to receive them before her own prep sessions began.
The strongest point in the Post editorial comes next. “What’s more an email sent to CIA Director David Petraeus late in the process states that ‘the White House cleared quickly’ a draft that said ‘initial press reporting linked the attack’ to a jihadist militia called Ansar al Sharia, though the militia had denied involvement.” If that’s true, the White House staff was less sensitive than the president about citing the involvement of jihadist groups in the immediate aftermath of the attacks – and less sensitive than others in the administration.
But the Post’s description of that bullet point is incomplete. It read: “The group has since released a statement that its leadership did not order the attacks, but did not deny that some of its members were involved.” Indeed, the denial isn’t really a denial at all. The statement, reported by Bill Roggio of Long War Journal, said only that the “Ansar al Sharia brigade didn’t participate in this popular uprising as a separate entity” and later “the Brigade didn’t participate as a sole entity.”
The editorial returns to this denial two paragraphs later, arguing that State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland “was right to suggest that it would be unwise for the US government, before evening beginning an investigation, to publicly pin blame for the attack on a group that had denied responsibility.”
That’s wrong, too. Not only had Ansar al Sharia not actually denied responsibility, but the investigation of who was responsible was well underway. And the language in the talking points hardly pinned blame on the group; it merely noted their possible involvement. And by that point there was little question that Ansar members participated in the attack. Acting assistant secretary of state Beth Jones wrote in an email to her colleagues on September 12 to describe a conversation she’d had with Libya’s ambassador to the U.S. When the Libyan official raised the possibility that loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi might have been involved, Jones corrected him. “When he said his government suspect that former Gadhafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” Communications intercepts within the first 24 hours confirmed the participation of Ansar members.
The editorial ends where it began: With a lecture. The Republican focus on “the phony issue of the talking points” is a distraction and their “bigger-than-Watergate rhetoric” makes them “look small-minded, hyperpartisan and foolish.”
There’s real wisdom in the advice for Republicans to avoid hyperbole in their descriptions of Benghazi. But that last line – the one about looking "small-minded, hyperpartisan and foolish" – brought to mind a previous Post editorial on Benghazi.
This one, published back in November under the headline “The GOP’s Bizarre Attack on Susan Rice,” lambasted Republicans for sending a letter to President Obama opposing Rice’s possible nomination as secretary of state, and for a “focus on half-baked conspiracy theories” on Benghazi.
Then, in the next and final paragraph, the Post wrote this: “Could it be, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are charging, that the signatories of the letter are targeting Ms. Rice because she is an African American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can’t know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy. You’d think that before launching their broadside, members of Congress would have taken care not to propagate any falsehoods of their own.”
Yes, the Post actually published that.
You’d think before scolding others about half-baked conspiracy theories, the Post would resist the temptation to engage in conspiracies of the fully-baked variety. And you’d think before complaining that “actual facts don’t matter” to those concerned about the administration’s selling of Benghazi, they’d have made certain theirs were correct.