The White House claim of ‘doctored e-mails... to smear the president’
“That’s a very serious offense that happened where Republicans on the Hill, we voluntarily provided these e-mails to, took one of them, doctored it and gave it to ABC News in an attempt to smear the president.”
— White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” May 19, 2013
“I think one of the problems that there’s so much controversy here is because one of the e-mails was doctored by a Republican source and given to the media to falsely smear the president.”
— Pfeiffer, on Fox News Sunday, May 19
“They received these e-mails months ago, didn’t say a word about it, didn’t complain ... And then last week a Republican source provided to Jon Karl of ABC News a doctored version of a White House e-mail that started this entire fear. After 25,000 pieces of paper are provided to Congress they have to doctor e-mail to make political hay, you know they’re getting desperate here.”
— Pfeiffer, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” May 19
When a White House aide uses the same word — “doctored” — on three television shows, you know it is a carefully crafted talking point. On top of that, he says that this was done to “smear the president.”
These are strong words concerning the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. But is this a case of the White House communications chief taking liberties with the facts?
Under pressure, the White House in March provided the e-mails to Capitol Hill Republicans surrounding the development of its talking points on the Benghazi attack when John Brennan was nominated to be CIA director. The talking points became an issue because they were used by U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice on the Sunday public affairs shows the week after the attack. Republicans, however, were not permitted to have copies of e-mails, but could only take notes on them.
The broad outlines of the mail exchanges were first disclosed in an April 23 report by House Republicans. The report quoted from and summarized various e-mails, but without the names of the senders attached. Far from Pfeiffer’s claim that Republicans “didn’t complain,” the report was highly critical.
“The Administration’s talking points were developed in an interagency process that focused more on protecting the reputation and credibility of the State Department than on explaining to the American people the facts surrounding the fatal attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel in Libya,” the report asserted.
In early May, Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard reported more details on the e-mails, in some cases explaining which officials were involved. But a central focus of his article was on the different versions of the talking points that emerged from the interagency process. Hayes, in most cases, summarized the e-mails unless quotes were in the House report.
Then, on May 10, ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported that there were 12 versions of talking points, under the headline: “Exclusive: Benghazi Talking Points Underwent 12 Revisions, Scrubbed of Terror Reference.” That was the key focus of the online article, as well as Karl’s appearances on the broadcast network that day. Karl, in fact, got all 12 versions of the talking points correct.
Karl started the article by citing “White House e-mails reviewed by ABC News.”
Later, he referred to “summaries of White House and State Department e-mails” and then lower in the article quoted from those e-mail summaries directly. As worded, the article gave the impression that these were actual quotes from e-mails.
In particular, Karl quotes Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes as writing late on the evening of Sept. 14:
“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.”
On May 13, CNN obtained the actual e-mail written by Rhodes, which said:
“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 deputies.”
Note the correct version is missing a direct reference to the State Department. CNN, which had only obtained the single e-mail, used strong words in its report about its competitor, ABC: “Whoever provided those accounts seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.”
When the White House last week released all of its e-mails, it became clear that Rhodes was responding at the tail end of a series of e-mail exchanges that largely discussed the State Department concerns.
In other words, the summary would have been fairly close if the commas had been removed and replaced with brackets: “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.”
So is this more a case of some sloppy note-taking and reportorial imprecision? (There were also some discrepancies concerning an e-mail from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.) Hayes, on May 14, noted: “Neither of my pieces quoted the Rhodes e-mail. This was no accident. Near-verbatim is not verbatim.”
Karl over the weekend tweeted, “I sincerely regret the error I made describing an email from Ben Rhodes. I should have stated, as I did elsewhere, the reporting was based on a summary provided by a source. I apologize for my mistake.” He declined to comment further.
“I didn’t speak to anyone who represented the email summaries as direct quotes,” Hayes said in an e-mail Monday. “I called around on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to follow up on what I thought were interesting footnotes in the House GOP report on Benghazi. Those notes referred to specific emails (and included exact times) and I thought there might be more to learn.”
Moreover, the full disclosure of e-mails makes it clear that White House officials were concerned about the State Department’s objections.
Referring to then deputy national security adviser (and now White House chief of staff), White House press officer Tommy Vietor wrote at 6:21 p.m.: “Denis [McDonough] would also like to make sure the highlighted portions are fully coordinated with the State Department in the event they get inquiries.” (He’s referring to sections in the draft that mention Ansar al-Sharia and to prior terror warnings in Benghazi — both of which were removed in the final draft.)
There is also the comment at 9:14 p.m. by a CIA official: “The State Department had major reservations with much or most of the document. We revised the document with those concerns in mind.”
White House officials argue that these e-mails show that the White House was coordinating the development of the talking points, favoring no side. Indeed, for all the accusations that the White House deliberately changed the talking points, this e-mail comment from a CIA official would greatly undercut that claim: “The White House cleared quickly, but State has major concerns.”
White House officials said that Pfeiffer’s claim of “doctored” e-mails is supported by a report on May 16 by CBS’s Major Garrett: “On Friday, Republicans leaked what they said was a quote from Rhodes: ‘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.’ But it turns out that in the actual e-mail, Rhodes did not mention the State Department. It read: ‘We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.’”
News anchor Scott Pelley, in introducing Garrett’s report, announced that “it turns out some of the quotes in those e-mails were wrong.”
Garrett referred a call to Sonya McNair, CBS spokeswoman, who said “Major’s report speaks for itself.”
Garrett’s report appears to quoting Karl’s version of the Rhodes e-mail. But oddly it also seems to be rebuke of reporting by his CBS colleague, Sharyl Attkisson, who published a story on May 10 that initially purported to quote from the e-mails. Yet her Rhodes quote is slightly different: “We don’t want to undermine the investigation...we want to address every department’s equities including the State Department, so we’ll deal with this at the Deputies meeting.” Garrett’s report, however, corrected her version of the Nuland e-mail, not Karl’s.
A columnist for Mediaite reported that Attkisson, when she filed her story, warned these e-mails were paraphrased. After Garrett’s report aired, Attkisson reiterated that point in an e-mail to reporters and editors: “The talking point draft emails read to CBS News last Friday were from handwritten notes, and the attorney source explained why they were not direct quotes and could not be represented as such, as I noted at the top of my reporting for important context.”
Attkisson did not respond to a request for comment. But since then, CBS has updated her original May 10 story with similar language, noting that this paragraph was “included in the original story submission but was omitted from a previous version due to an inadvertent error in the editing process.”
(In one of those only-in-Washington connections, we need to note that David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, is the brother of Ben Rhodes.)
While the White House has tried to highlight ABC’s error on the Rhodes e-mail, it is worth noting that it did not play a prominent role in much of the news coverage. (The one exception is Fox News.) After the ABC report, the Rhodes e-mail was not part of the nightly newscasts; neither was it cited in the news reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post. USA Today and The Los Angeles Times mentioned Rhodes, but at the bottom of the story. “Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor at the White House, wrote in a subsequent email that Nuland’s concerns would have to be taken into account,” the Times said.
The article also said: “White House Press Secretary Jay Carney did not dispute their authenticity during a lengthy explanation Friday afternoon.”
White House officials disagreed with our findings. “ABC News reported they obtained the e-mails, CNN reported they were doctored, and CBS News reported they were from Republican sources,” said spokesman Eric Schultz.
The Pinocchio Test
It has long been part of the Washington game for officials to discredit a news story by playing up errors in a relatively small part of it. Pfeiffer gives the impression that GOP operatives deliberately tried to “smear the president” with false, doctored e-mails.
But the reporters involved have indicated they were told by their sources that these were summaries, taken from notes of e-mails that could not be kept. The fact that slightly different versions of the e-mails were reported by different journalists suggests there were different note-takers as well.
Indeed, Republicans would have been foolish to seriously doctor e-mails that the White House at any moment could have released (and eventually did). Clearly, of course, Republicans would put their own spin on what the e-mails meant, as they did in the House report. Given that the e-mails were almost certain to leak once they were sent to Capitol Hill, it’s a wonder the White House did not proactively release them earlier.
The burden of proof lies with the accuser. Despite Pfeiffer’s claim of political skullduggery, we see little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists.
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