Today at the East Room of the White House, President Obama said of the latest flare-up over the Benghazi story, “There’s no there there.”
The backdrop for the president’s dismissal of the issue dates to Friday, when ABC News published a story tracing the origins of the administration’s talking points in the direct aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks. References to al-Qaeda were removed from the document, which U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used to guide her comments on five Sunday talk show on Sept. 16. Critics have charged that the edits amount to a cover-up, considering that Obama’s reelection campaign had highlighted successes in beating back al-Qaeda.
“The whole issue of the talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow,” said the president, citing the following considerations:
1) The e-mails on which ABC News based its reporting were released to “congressional committees” months ago.
2) He himself called Benghazi an “act of terror” the day after it happened. Today he said that he’d called it an “act of terrorism.”
3) Days after Rice’s appearance, he said he sent Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to Capitol Hill to discuss Benghazi. Olsen said it was a terrorist attack.
A rebuttal to the president’s line of argument comes from the CBS News archives. On Sept. 12, Steve Kroft sat down with the president to discuss the attack. Here’s a key portion:
KROFT: Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya attack, do you believe that this was a terrorism attack?
OBAMA: Well it’s too early to tell exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans. And we are going to be working with the Libyan government to make sure that we bring these folks to justice, one way or the other.
Other Obama media moments bear on the terrorism-suppression accusation. In a Sept. 18 appearance with David Letterman, for instance, the president opened his explanation of the event by talking about that famous anti-Islam video. “Terrorists,” said Obama, “used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the consulate in Libya.”
And on Sept. 25, the president hung out on ABC’s “The View” and said in response to a question from Joy Behar on the terrorism matter:
“We’re still doing an investigation. There’s no doubt that [with] the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. We don’t have all the information yet, so we’re still gathering it. But what’s clear is that around the world, there’s still a lot of threats out there.” He also referenced “extremist militias” who were suspected of having carried out the attack.
The president today attributed the rebirth of the Benghazi story to political forces, and made a direct reference to “Capitol Hill.” Okay, but he forgot another actor: The media. We accorded last week’s House hearing on the Benghazi whistleblowers our best real estate. We have begun fact-checking the testimony and following various leads therefrom. We programmed our Sunday talk-show programs to exploit the revived issue. We are doubtless planning more stuff for the week to come.
If this issue is so dead, as the president says, why would the media be so excited about it? One suggestion along those lines: ambiguity. Have a look at this CNN timeline of administration statements on Benghazi. If you want to make an argument that Obama and his deputies suppressed the terrorism angle, there’s something in there for you. And if you want to make the argument that they disclosed the terrorism angle, there’s something in there for you as well.