REPUBLICANS AND conservative media obsessed with what they regard as the Obama administration’s scandalous coverup of the nature of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 have offered a shifting series of allegations. First they charged that U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice “willfully or incompetently misled the American public” when she appeared on news programs Sept. 16 and described the attack as having emerged from a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim video.
When it was established that Ms. Rice was simply repeating talking points prepared by the intelligence community, Republicans claimed that the guidance must have been subjected to political doctoring by a White House determined to avoid describing the assault as an terrorist attack. This week Republicans claimed a smoking gun: e-mails leaked to the Weekly Standard and ABC, they alleged, showed that the talking points had been altered to remove references to al-Qaeda and a Libyan jihadist militia as well as to CIA warnings before the attack about an extremist threat in Benghazi.
This is one of those Washington dust-ups where the actual facts don’t seem to matter much to the scandal mongers. But for those not already infected with this particular Potomac fever, we’d like to point out a few of those facts.
First, it turns out that every version of the talking points, from the first draft by the CIA to the final one approved by a high-level interagency committee, contained the assessment that the Benghazi incidents “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.” Those Cairo demonstrations were triggered by reports of the anti-Muslim video. It follows that Ms. Rice did not willfully mislead anyone, and that the 97 House Republicans who signed a letter charging that she did owe the ambassador an apology.
Second, the e-mail record makes clear that the talking points were not prepared for Ms. Rice but for a Democratic House member who requested them so that he could know what he could tell the press. Ms. Rice’s staff got wind of them and asked for a copy. What’s more, an e-mail sent to CIA Director David Petraeus late in the process states that “the White House cleared quickly” a draft that said “initial press reporting linked the attack” to a jihadist militia called Ansar al-Sharia, though the militia had denied involvement. That draft also referred to previous CIA warnings about “the threat of extremists linked to al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya.” So if there was a White House conspiracy to suppress the terrorist angle in Benghazi, it did not touch these talking points.
So why were those points eventually edited? The e-mail record shows that the State Department raised objections for several reasons. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed out that the CIA was proposing to have members of Congress put out information, such as the reporting about Ansar al-Sharia, that State had withheld on the grounds that it was unconfirmed and might prejudice an investigation. She also worried that the references to warnings “could be abused by [Congressmen] to beat the State Department for not paying attention.” As all in the bureaucracy knew, State believed this would be unjust because the Benghazi mission was largely a CIA operation and was under the protection of a CIA security force, though that had not been publicly disclosed.
Ms. Nuland, a distinguished career Foreign Service officer who served during the George W. Bush administration as ambassador to NATO and as an aide to Vice President Cheney, hardly fits the role of an Obama political enforcer. She was attempting to protect her department from what looked like bureaucratic buck-passing and herself from reporters who might ask why she had failed to deliver information being retailed by members of Congress. On the merits, she was right to suggest that it would be unwise for the U.S. government, before even beginning an investigation, to publicly pin blame for the attack on a group that had denied responsibility.
As we have previously written, there were serious errors by the State Department and other agencies leading up to the Benghazi debacle. An independent review board commissioned by the State Department identified some of them, such as the failure to properly fortify the Benghazi compound that was first attacked. More broadly, the Obama administration’s zeal to avoid commitments in the Middle East caused it to underestimate Libya’s need for security assistance following NATO’s 2011 intervention and to fail to prepare for the possibility of a military emergency in North Africa.
By focusing on the phony issue of the talking points, Republicans are missing the opportunity to press for needed reforms at State and a more active U.S. policy in the Middle East. They should also be spurring a sluggish FBI investigation to determine who really organized and led the attacks in Benghazi; it has yet to be established whether they were ordered by local jihadists, terrorists linked to al-Qaeda or someone else, and whether they were planned because of the Sept. 11 anniversary or inspired by the events in Cairo.
Instead, with their bigger-than-Watergate rhetoric, the GOP’s scandal-pushers are making themselves look small-minded, hyperpartisan and foolish.