The White House yesterday did something uncharacteristic. In releasing a boatload of e-mails relating to interagency discussions on the Benghazi attacks, it propelled a fresh round of press attention to the events of Sept. 11, 2012, in which four U.S. personnel lost their lives.
The 100 pages of correspondence among top administration officials, unearth the tedious negotiations among the State Department, the CIA and law-enforcement authorities over the talking points to be used by Congress and by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice in an ill-fated series of Sept. 16 appearances on Sunday political talk shows. In summing up the records, the Washington Post writes that they “did not include political interference from the White House.” The New York Times indicates they “suggest that Mr. Obama’s aides mostly mediated a bureaucratic tug of war between the State Department and the C.I.A. over how much to disclose — all under heavy time constraints because of the demands from Capitol Hill.”
Tommy Vietor, who served as spokesman for the National Security Council when the talking points were hammered out and has since left the post, insists that the documents reveal how “mundane and boring” interagency negotiations can be. “This is post-9/11 information-sharing and trying to make sure that everybody’s equities are protected.”
And this hard-to-read e-mail chain, says Vietor, wouldn’t be in the public realm if it weren’t for a source who “fabricated an e-mail” and passed it along to ABC News. That charge echoes what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday, when he accused “Republicans” of doctoring e-mails suggesting that the White House had interfered in the formulation of the talking-points e-mails. These allegations address an ABC News story by reporter Jonathan Karl, who reported that a White House aide had specifically referenced a need to act upon the strong objections by the State Department to drafts of the talking points. Those objections led to the deletion of significant portions of the document.
To trudge into the weeds, here’s how ABC News reported that White House aide Ben Rhodes put things:
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper subsequently came up with the verbatim e-mail, which didn’t read quite the way ABC News had indicated:
We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.
Tapper summed up:
So whoever leaked the inaccurate information earlier this month did so in a way that made it appear that the White House – specifically Rhodes – was more interested in the State Department’s concerns, and more focused on the talking points, than the e-mail actually stated.
Asked to reply to the charges that he passed along a fabricated e-mail, Karl didn’t respond directly. However, he did write in his own wrapup of the saga:
The emails confirm the ABC News report that the so-called “talking points” written by the CIA on the attack underwent extensive revisions – 12 versions – and that substantial changes were made after the State Department expressed concerns.
The New York Times even provides some backup for Karl, noting in its assessment that “the e-mails portrayed White House officials as being sensitive to the concerns of the State Department…”
Whatever the particulars of CNN-Tapper v. ABC News-Karl, news accounts prior to last night painted a maddeningly incomplete picture of just what happened in this pivotal interagency negotiation. Karl’s report rested on summaries of e-mails that the administration had released months ago to Congress. Who provided those summaries, and did they have some bias in the matter? Carney surely thought so. In turn, Tapper came up with a single electronic mail from dozens exchanged in this massive and convoluted process. How did that aid our understanding?
Given the limitations of this leak-aided reporting, we might expect the release of the Benghazi e-mails in toto to sew up the matter. Here’s what the chain shows:
1) The amount of information available to the public shrinks as more flacks and top-level officials involve themselves in the drafting.
2) White House political types, indeed, didn’t intervene in the e-mail discussion.
3) The garbage about spontaneous protests was there from the start.
Here’s what it doesn’t show: Motivations.
Sure: The e-mail chain notes that in certain circumstances, information was deleted in deference to the ongoing criminal investigation; or in deference to the State Department’s concerns about its relations vis-a-vis Congress, and the like. But e-mails don’t tells us what officials may have said in phone calls or whether, perhaps, career agency officials may have wanted to minimize the White House’s exposure on Benghazi.
All we know is that Rice had a skimpy set of approved talking points when she went on air on Sunday, Sept. 16. She talked and talked about spontaneous protests and an anti-Islam video, denting her career prospects and inviting the most vicious of election-year political backlashes.
Vietor watched the whole thing in amazement. Opponents were hammering Rice for talking about a video that caused quite a bit of commotion, he says. “There’s no question that a number of countries were aflame because of the video. It’s absurd to dismiss the role that video played in protests in dozens of countries,” he says.
And he blames the media for failing to counter the notion that mentioning the video amounted to deception. “The press has been so lazy, it’s infuriating,” he says. Proven: The media, in Benghazi, has managed to disappoint both the administration and its critics. What neutrality.