by Stephen F. Hayes
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last summer by Judicial Watch, the Obama administration last week released 41 documents related to the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. An email from the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, has received most of the attention. In it, Rhodes laid out four goals for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who would be appearing on five Sunday talk shows 36 hours later. “To convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad; To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy; To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice, and standing steadfast through these protests; To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
The Judicial Watch documents also included White House talking points for Rice, with possible questions and answers she might provide to meet the goals set out by Rhodes. These new White House talking points included a broad discussion of the Arab Spring and its challenges, as well as several specific references to the attacks in Benghazi—a mention of Ambassador Chris Stevens, a question on Benghazi intelligence, and a separate section under the header “Benghazi.”
The Rhodes email and new talking points went to many top Obama administration communications and political officials, including press secretary Jay Carney, communications director Dan Pfeiffer, and Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe.
At his press briefing April 30, Carney took a question about the new documents from ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl. “Jay, I guess you’re aware that Judicial Watch obtained an email from Ben Rhodes to staff members about the Benghazi attack.” Carney disputed Karl’s characterization—“That’s incorrect”—and followed with a jaw-dropping claim. “The email and the talking points were not about Benghazi. They were about the general situation in the Muslim world where you saw, as you may recall, protests.”
The email and the talking points—produced in response to a FOIA request for Benghazi-related documents and with multiple references to the attacks in Benghazi three days earlier—were not about Benghazi? This was too much even for a White House press corps that long ago dismissed Benghazi as a legitimate news story. Reporters who cover the White House might not know the details of the intelligence on alleged attacker Ali Harzi. And they might not understand the ties between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Sharia Libya. But they know when they’re being misled.
In the weeks after the Benghazi attacks, Carney and other top administration officials went to great lengths to suggest that the Obama administration’s public response
to the attacks was strictly based on assessments provided by the intelligence community. This was not true.
In testimony last month, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, distanced his agency from Rice’s video-focused narrative on Benghazi. He acknowledged that the CIA had, incorrectly, provided an assessment that included a discussion of protests outside the diplomatic post in Benghazi. But, when it came to the video, he made clear that Rice was on her own. “When she talked about the video, my reaction was, that’s not something the analysts have attributed this attack to.” The comments were notable not only because Morell has been a reliable water-carrier for the Obama administration on Benghazi, but because they further illuminated a split between the White House and the CIA that has been evident for some time.
It is now clear that there were, in effect, two sets of Benghazi talking points. The first were initially produced by the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis and, after heavy input from top Obama administration officials, provided to Capitol Hill and to Susan Rice. These are the talking points that have gotten so much attention over the past 18 months—the ones that started out with bold and declarative statements about the “al Qaeda” role in the “attacks” on the Benghazi compound and were watered down after input from the White House and the State Department. Last May, after the contents of email traffic related to that first set of talking points were described in this magazine and on ABC News, the White House released some of the emails. There were just two passing references to the video in those 100 pages of email traffic.
The newly released documents reveal a second set of talking points. These talking points are broader, as the White House claims, and they emphasize the video in connection to the Benghazi attacks. As the Rhodes email put it, Rice’s Sunday-show appearances were meant “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy; to show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice.”
At the same time the White House was putting the video at the center of the Benghazi story, intelligence professionals and U.S. officials on the ground in Libya were describing a precise attack carried out by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. The Weekly Standard has learned that an analysis from the Defense Intelligence Agency produced a day before Rhodes sent his email assigned blame for the attacks to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Sharia Libya. The DIA analysis did not mention a video. It adds to the still-growing body of memos and warnings from top U.S. officials. The top U.S. intelligence official on the ground in Libya repeatedly told officials in Washington that the Benghazi attacks were part of a planned assault by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. The top diplomat in the country said the same thing. Last week, a top intelligence official for AFRICOM told Congress that he shared that view.
We are left with this reality: Top diplomats and intelligence officers in Libya offered assessments of the Benghazi attacks that were true when they made them and remain true today. But top Obama administration officials ignored those assessments. Six weeks before the 2012 presidential election, those officials—at the direction of White House communications and political strategists desperate to maintain the fiction that al Qaeda was “on the run”—lied to the public about how four Americans were killed in a sophisticated attack carried out, on the anniversary of 9/11, by terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda.
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Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer for The Weekly Standard.