At a White House press briefing on May 1, Barack Obama spokesman Jay Carney attempted to frame new reporting on the Benghazi attacks as old news by noting that the attacks had taken place "a long time ago."
Just ten days have passed since he uttered that infelicitous phrase. But it feels like a long time ago.
National Journal’s Ron Fournier takes a close look at the Obama administration’s unraveling spin in a piece today headlined: “Scrubbing the Truth from Benghazi.”
He describes the process that led to the removal of very carefully phrased references to Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda linked group operating in Benghazi and responsible for several previous attacks against western targets, including diplomatic facilities. By the time the Obama administration removed those rather generic references to Ansar al Sharia, the original reporting of their involvement had been bolstered by new intelligence, in multiple streams and from a variety of sources.
And yet, as Fournier puts it: “The paragraph was deleted. The truth was scrubbed.”
That’s important. But Fournier, who covered the White House from the front row of the briefing room for years for the Associated Press, picked up on very carefully phrased language that White House spokesman Jay Carney has used in his most recent explanations of the revision of the talking points.
Fournier writes: “In a statement to ABC, Carney notably insulates the West Wing and not the State Department by saying ‘the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and nonsubstantive.’”
It’s an important catch. And there’s more.
The White House is also still assigning responsibility for the talking points mess to the CIA and the intelligence community.
Back on October 10, Carney said: “Again, from the beginning, we have provided information based on the facts that we knew as they became available, based on assessments by the intelligence community — not opinions — assessments by the IC, by the intelligence community. And we have been clear all along that this was an ongoing investigation, that as more facts became available we would make you aware of them as appropriate, and we’ve done that.”
Carney said this week: “What we said and what remains true to this day is that the intelligence community drafted and redrafted these points.”
Is Carney’s claim technically true? Did the intelligence community draft and redraft the talking points? Perhaps. The intelligence community certainly drafted the talking points. And internal Obama administration emails suggest that Mike Morell, the deputy director of the CIA, may have been the official to physically make the changes to previous CIA drafts.
But if Carney is suggesting that the only substantive changes came after suggestions from the intelligence officials – and that seems to be the point of his statement – what he is saying is demonstrably untrue. The most significant and substantive changes came after policymakers at the State Department and White House suggested revisions.
The simple fact that reporters are now having to parse the carefully-phrased utterances of top Obama administration officials – including and especially the president’s chief spokesman – means that, yes, Benghazi is a real scandal.
But the problem isn’t primarily Carney. Here’s what Barack Obama said in an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on October 18, 2012:
“When a tragic event like this happens on the other side of the world, immediately a whole bunch of intelligence starts coming in and people try to piece together exactly what happened,” he explained. “And what I have always tried to do is to make sure we just get all the facts, figure out what went wrong, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. And we’re still in that process now. But everything we get, every piece of information we get—as we got it—we laid it out for the American people.”
Every piece of information we get – as we got it – we laid out for the American people.
The opposite is closer to the truth. The evidence is clear that senior Obama administration officials, including top advisers to the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, participated in a coordinated effort to keep the real story of Benghazi from the American people.
The question is whether the president will do now what he promised he would do – “a long time ago.”