The Benghazi approach to government transparency


(Esam Omran al-Fetori / Reuters)

News outlets are forever agonizing about how to get the government to cough up information — FOIAs, stakeouts, tough questions, maybe even subterfuge. The eight-month-old Benghazi scandal suggests one approach that journalists may not want to replicate: Error.

Though we have learned a lot about the attack in Libya from official reports, whistle-blower testimony and various leaks, a significant info-dump came straight from U.S. intelligence officials in a background briefing last fall. They released a timeline of Benghazi events stating just how security officials at a CIA annex responded to the attack at a State Department diplomatic installation on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. The unveiling of the timeline came in an unusual event-driven meeting with reporters that required a great deal of preparation.

Why the download to the media?

Any accounting must include a “bombshell” report by Fox News regarding Benghazi. As reported extensively in this space, an Oct. 26 story by Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin botched the location of Glen Doherty, a key U.S. security operator who would lose his life in the hostilities. It also made a number of other claims — about “stand down” orders and detainees, for example — that remain challenged and unsubstantiated, at best. A follow-up on the piece alleged that the attack was preceded by commotion, roadblocks and gathering militias — a depiction countered by official accounts and published reports.

The moment Fox News’s Oct. 26 story hit the Internet, the CIA scrambled to put together an on-the-record denial:

“We can say with confidence that the agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.”

The next week, it organized the media briefing.

In a shocking twist, the Erik Wemple Blog proved unable to pry a comment from the CIA about what triggered its briefing on the Benghazi timeline. Absent official comment, we feel licensed to speculate: It never would have happened without the Fox News story.

Nearly seven months later, Benghazi again roared into Beltway newsrooms, this time propelled by an excellent House hearing that featured testimony from whistle-blower Gregory Hicks, a State Department official who was stationed in Benghazi at the time of the attacks. Headlines surrounding the hearing fueled renewed curiosity about the evolution of the talking points that Susan Rice used to disastrous effect on the Sept. 16 Sunday talk shows.

ABC News, CBS News and the Weekly Standard vacuumed up leaks on interagency e-mail deliberations on the talking points. All of them would come under attack at one point or another for inaccurate or incomplete portrayals of a tortuous and tedious bureaucratic slog. The May 10 ABC News report by Jonathan Karl, however, took on sustained fire; Karl quoted an e-mail from White House aide Ben Rhodes that was a bit off: Where Karl said that the e-mail articulated explicit deference to the position of the State Department, the actual e-mail did not. (Equivalency disclaimer: Whereas the Fox News story pushed a raft of unsubstantiated allegations and error, the problem with the ABC News piece was infinitely more limited; they’re both included in this post because of their impact on subsequent events).

Whatever your take on the gravity of Karl’s miscue — for which he expressed regret while noting that the thrust of his story remained intact — it played an unmistakable role in prompting the White House to release 100 pages of interagency e-mails. If administration critics are going to allow a jaded look at government operations to surface in the media, the White House seemed to be saying, then here, have a look at all the e-mails.

Those documents bored the Erik Wemple Blog to sleep one evening last week, yet they’re fascinating in their own way. They show how careful government officials have become on e-mail correspondence; they show how many considerations the agencies have to process before pushing something out to the public; they show that the more people — especially flacks — who involve themselves in a government decision, the less information eventually makes its way to the public. And finally, they raise questions about the role played by former CIA director David Petraeus. For decades to come, college students will write term papers for their poli-sci classes on what the documents teach us about the way the government rolls. And if not for a journalistic misattribution, they might never have come to light.

In another shocking twist, the White House declined to comment on what role journalistic error may have played in its e-mail release.

The White House’s e-mail release muzzled critics complaining that the talking points were sauteed by White House chefs. Yet they’ll inevitably bedevil White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and other officials, who’ll have to entertain heightened expectations for document dumps among the press corps. Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, says that some time in the future, a reporter will petition the White House for deliberative documents with this entreaty: “‘But you did it in Benghazi, when it was helpful to you,’” says Vietor. “And we’ll start this stupid process all over again.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | May 22, 2013