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An alternative explanation for the Benghazi talking points: Bureaucratic knife fight

at 01:15 PM ET, 05/10/2013


The U.S. “diplomatic post” in Benghazi in flames after the attack of Sept. 11, 2012. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

From time to time, the Fact Checker writes an analytic look at news events, based on his three decades of experience covering diplomacy and politics, rather than a traditional fact check. This is one of those columns.

 

There have been many questions raised about the development of the administration’s talking points in the aftermath of the attack on Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador. There have been allegations that the administration deliberately covered up the fact that this was a terrorist attack. We have noted before, in our extensive timeline of Benghazi statements, how long it took the president to concede that point in the midst of his reelection campaign.

But with the release of 12 versions of the talking points Friday by ABC News, perhaps there is an alternative explanation: This basically was a bureaucratic knife fight, pitting the State Department against the CIA.

In other words, the final version of the talking points may have been so wan because officials simply deleted everything that upset the two sides. So they were left with nothing.

Let’s examine the evidence for a bureaucratic explanation.

First, some important context: Although the ambassador was killed, the Benghazi “consulate” was not a consulate at all but basically a secret CIA operation which included an effort to round up shoulder-launched missiles. In fact, only seven of the 30 Americans evacuated from Benghazi had any connection to the State Department; the rest were affiliated with the CIA.

The official reports, such as the one from the Accountability Review Board and the Senate Homeland Security Committee report, essentially dance around that uncomfortable fact:

 “In December 2011, the Under Secretary for Management approved a one-year continuation of the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, which was never a consulate and never formally notified to the Libyan government.” (ARB)

 “The attacks in Benghazi occurred at two different locations: a Department of State ‘Temporary Mission Facility’ and an Annex facility (‘Annex’) approximately a mile away used by another agency of the United States Government.” (Senate report)

So, from the State Department perspective, this was an attack on a CIA operation, perhaps by the very people the CIA was battling, and the ambassador tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, for obvious reasons, the administration could not publicly admit that Benghazi was mostly a secret CIA effort.

The talking points were originally developed by the CIA at the request of a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Interestingly, all of the versions are consistent on one point — that the attacks were “spontaneously inspired by protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo,” a fact later deemed to be incorrect.

The talking points through Friday begin to become rather detailed, at which point there is sharp push-back from the State Department. Let’s look at the version as of 5:09 p.m. on Sept 14, a Friday, and see the red flags for State:

■The talking points refer to a “direct assault against the U.S. consulate.”

■ The CIA says it “warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.”

■ The CIA says it “has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists in Benghazi and eastern Libya.” It cites “at least five other attacks” against foreign interests and says it “cannot rule out the individuals had previously surveilled [sic] the U.S. facilities.”

The clear implication is that State screwed up, even though internally, it was known that this was a CIA operation. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland especially objects to the reference to previous warnings, saying it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings.”

Moreover, Nuland had been constrained from saying much about the attack at her daily press briefings, so she was unsure why the agency would suddenly give so much information to members of Congress.

After the CIA makes minor changes, such as deleting a reference to the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, Nuland responds, “These changes don’t resolve all of my issues or those of my building’s leadership.”  At that point, a White House official weighs in and writes in an e-mail:

“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.”

 

UPDATE: CNN says it obtained an actual copy of this email and it differs from how it was previously reported, particularly because there is no specific mention of the State Department:

“We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation....We can take this up tomorrow morning at the deputies.”

The final version of the talking points shows what happened: Just about everything was cut, leaving virtually nothing. The reference to “consulate” was also deleted, replaced by “diplomatic post.”

From a bureaucratic perspective, it may have seemed like the best possible solution at the time. From a political perspective, it turned out to be a disaster.

For reasons unknown, the White House sent U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice on five Sunday shows with those talking points — and the rest is history. The talking points were so weak that Rice immediately raised suspicions that the administration was hiding something important. (She instantly earned Pinocchios.) She also repeatedly referenced the supposed impact of an anti-Islam video, which was never a part of the talking points.

Further investigation may make the bureaucratic explanation moot. But, in Washington, one should never underestimate the importance of internal conflict between agencies.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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