In the immediate aftermath of the attacks against U.S. personnel in Cairo and Benghazi, the news media also faced quite an attack. In a news conference with Mitt Romney the next morning, reporters persisted in quizzing the Republican presidential candidate on the politics of the matter.
One question focused on whether Romney regretted the tone of the statement that he’d issued the night before; another zeroed in on the timing of the statement; another inquired about criticizing the Obama administration; another pressed the candidate about whether he’d jumped the gun; another asked whether he would have issued the statement if he’d had more information. Only two of the seven or eight questions veered (slightly) from this script. It was a blowout for optics-oriented inquiry.
Critics checked mercy at their mousepads, slamming the Romney press corps for pursuing a single line of questioning, hammering the candidate over matters of political posturing and showing little curiosity about the policy matters at stake. A consensus formed among the media-criticizing legions: In a similar scenario, the Obama press corps wouldn’t be nearly as ferocious.
Now the Obama-following media have a chance to show their stuff. In recent days, the administration’s explanation for the provenance of those Benghazi attacks has come undone. Whereas immediately after the episode administration officials talked a great deal about that offensive Internet video and spontaneous protests, a Daily Beast article from early Wednesday reported that official intelligence had “strong indications” within 24 hours that it was an al-Qaeda hit.
Beast reporter Eli Lake lays out the disconnect between that tidbit and the official statements from the administration:
Nonetheless, it took until late last week for the White House and the administration to formally acknowledge that the Benghazi assault was a terrorist attack. On Sunday, Obama adviser Robert Gibbs explained the evolving narrative as a function of new information coming in quickly on the attacks. “We learned more information every single day about what happened,” Gibbs said on Fox News. “Nobody wants to get to the bottom of this faster than we do.”
Damning information for the White House, not to mention a heavy load for those charged with holding the administration accountable. (Politico’s Josh Gerstein points out that President Obama called the incidents “acts of terror” just after they occurred.) So how thoroughly have the media badgered officialdom about the contradictions in the aftermath of the Daily Beast’s revelations?
Please scroll through relevant parts of the White House press gaggles from Wednesday and Thursday. Quoted are Jay Carney of the White House and Jen Psaki of the Obama reelection campaign.
Q: Jay, in his interview on the “Today Show” this morning, the Libyan president said that the attacks on the consulate had nothing to do with the video that sparked all the protests as elsewhere. He also repeated his claim that they were preplanned, given their sophistication, so given that’s in direct contradiction to what the administration says, who’s right?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can tell you that President [Mohamed] Magarief made very heartfelt public statements before his meeting with Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton in New York about the brave four Americans who were killed and the firm commitment of Libya to not allow a violent minority to hijack Libya’s hopes and dreams.
Over the course of the past two weeks, this administration has provided as much information as it has been able to. We made clear that our initial assessment and interim reports were based on information that was available at the time. Several administration officials, including the [National Counterterrorism Center] director, have spoken on the record about the information we have. We have also been clear that there’s an ongoing FBI investigation and that we must allow that investigation to take its course. The Accountability Review Board established by Secretary of State Clinton is also doing a full investigation.
I can point you again to the statements by the NCTC director about his assessment as the chief counterterrorism official about the information that we had available at the time about how the attack occurred and who was responsible. And it continues to be the case that we provided information based on what we know — not based on speculation, but based on what we know — acknowledging that we are continuing an investigation that will undoubtedly uncover more facts, and as more facts and more details emerge we will, when appropriate, provide them to you.
Q: The fact that he was pretty equivocal statement today that the video —
MR. CARNEY: The U.S. intelligence upon which we make our assessments has provided very clear public assessments of the information that they have available, that they had initially, that they had available when the NCTC director talked to Congress and spoke publicly. And that’s what — we make our judgments based on the information that we gather.
Q: One more question on that. But how often is the president in contact with President Magarief? I mean, are they talking every day? Are they sharing this information? Is there anything that he might be aware of that the president would not be?
MR. CARNEY: We have significant cooperation with the new Libyan government, but I don’t think intelligence sharing occurs at the president-to-president level, necessarily. President Obama did speak last week with the Libyan leader, the same night that he spoke with President Morsi of Egypt. But I don’t believe they’ve had a conversation since.
Q: Can I ask one more — are criticizing the president for not classifying what happened in Benghazi as a terrorist attack, going as far as you did or the NCTC director. Can you respond to that and explain why that is?
MR. CARNEY: The president spoke eloquently, I believe, about the attack that took the lives of four Americans at the United Nations General Assembly and, I think, made very clear that it is wholly unacceptable to respond to a video, no matter how offensive, with violence, and it is wholly unacceptable, regardless of the reason, to attack embassies or diplomatic facilities and to kill diplomatic personnel.
The president — our position is, as reflected by the NCTC director, that it was a terrorist attack. It is, I think by definition, a terrorist attack when there is a prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons.
The broader questions here about who participated, what led to the attack on the facility in Benghazi — all those questions are under investigation at two levels, by the FBI and by the Accountability Review Board established by Secretary Clinton to look at issues of security in Benghazi and security at other diplomatic facilities.
So, let’s be clear, it was a terrorist attack and it was an inexcusable attack.
Q: Is there any reason why the president did not — he was asked point-blank in “The View” interview, is this a terrorist attack, yes or no? Is there any reason why he didn’t say yes?
MR. CARNEY: No, there’s — I mean, he answered the question that he was asked, and there’s no reason that he chose the words he did beyond trying to provide a full explanation of his views and his assessment that we need to await further information that the investigation will uncover. But it is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.
Q: On Benghazi, there still is considerable confusion over what the administration considers the attack on the U.S. Consulate. Can you say why the FBI still hasn’t been able to get into that crime scene? And how aggressively is the United States looking for clues, and as the president says, bringing them to justice?
MR. CARNEY: I would have to refer you to the FBI for specifics about the investigation that they’re leading. I can tell you that the president is determined, as he has said many times, that the perpetrators of the attack that cost four American lives, including our ambassador, be brought to justice. And he will insist that the agencies of his administration take all necessary action to bring about that eventuality.
Q: If the president does not call it, label it a terrorist attack, as you and others have, is there some legal or diplomatic trigger that that brings? Why hasn’t he said that?
MR. CARNEY: I think you’re misunderstanding something here. I’m the president’s spokesman. When the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, in open testimony in Congress, answered a question by saying yes, by the definitions we go by — this is me paraphrasing — this was a terrorist attack — I echoed that, because this president, this administration, everybody looks to the intelligence community for the assessments on this. And it has been since I said so, the president’s position that this was a terrorist attack.
There are broader issues here that the president has addressed in answering questions, and he’s obviously interested in, as we all are, in waiting for the final result of an investigation. But let’s be clear about this. Every step of the way, the information that we have provided to you and the general public about the attack in Benghazi has been based on the best intelligence we’ve had and the assessments of our intelligence community. We have said all along that there’s an ongoing investigation and that, as more facts come out, we will follow those facts wherever they lead and apprise you of our assessments as those facts come to light.
What has also been the case is that from the very first hours after the attacks and the unrest in Cairo, there has been an attempt, unfortunately, by Republicans, beginning with Governor Romney, to try to turn this event into a partisan issue, to try to score political points out of a terrorist attack that cost the lives of four Americans, including our ambassador to Libya — and that’s unfortunate.
This president is absolutely focused on finding out exactly what happened, who is responsible, and bringing those responsible to justice.
Q: Jen, could you weigh in on the Romney campaign’s criticism of Obama over how the Benghazi issue has been handled? Any political aspects to that that you see?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think every time Mitt Romney has attempted to dip his toe in foreign policy waters, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. So if you look at the last couple of months — I know this isn’t exactly your question, but I’m getting there — he went overseas on a foreign trip that was built up, offended our closest ally. He gave a speech that was his best opportunity to lay out his case to the American people on why he was prepared to be commander in chief, and he failed to mention our troops, failed to mention Afghanistan. He jumped the gun in criticizing the president on the night that these tragic events happened, which is something that, as we know, is not traditionally what takes place in a political campaign, given the tragedy and the seriousness of what was underway.
Look, I think the American people are going to look at the president vs. Mitt Romney, and look at their records and look at their vision. The president has been very — from the beginning of his time in the White House he has said, before he went into office, I’m going to end the war in Iraq — he did that. I’m going to go after Osama bin Laden — he is dead. I’m going — and al-Qaeda is decimated. I’m going to restore our place in the world — he’s done that. That’s how people are going to look at and evaluate the president’s record.
We know that Mitt Romney wants to change the subject, wants to get at a strength for the president, and it’s clear that that’s what’s going on here.
Q: Jay, you made a point of saying you’re his spokesman and so what you say is policy. But there is a difference in weight when a spokesman says something vs. when the president says something. Is there a reason that that particular word hasn’t come out of his mouth? He’s had a chance —
MR. CARNEY: As I said yesterday, no, there is no — he was simply answering a question and explaining that the matter is under investigation. Again, he bases his judgments on matters like this on the assessments that he’s provided by the intelligence community. The head, the director of the NCTC went before Congress and made clear what his views were about how he would describe this, which is that it was a terrorist attack.
And I think it’s important to note, I mean, definitionally, what a terrorist attack means, and that’s why I say it was self-evident when you have an armed assault on a diplomatic facility that results in the death of four Americans. That’s definitionally a terrorist attack.
In terms of the partisan criticism here that has been sort of all over the map, I think it’s important to note that key members of the Senate and House in the Republican Party have been briefed by the same intelligence officials that provide intelligence to the administration, to the president, and they’ve gotten the same information. They’re fully aware of the information that has been developed and what the views were as we’ve moved along since the events of that night in Benghazi — or that day in Benghazi. So it just underscores the fact that there’s an unfortunate attempt to politicize something like this.
What the president is focused on is on bringing those to justice who killed four Americans and ensuring, as he said at his United Nations speech, that our embassies and diplomatic facilities and our diplomatic personnel around the world are being provided the protection by host countries that those countries are obligated to provide.
Wrap-up: A caveat or two here. One is that the story by Eli Lake comes to us via the Daily Beast, an organ of the mainstream media, which, if I am to believe much of what I read, wants to cover up any inconsistencies in the Obama explanation for Benghazi. Not expose them. Another is that the media pressured the White House fairly heavily in the days right after the attack.
Even so, the level of heat bearing down on Carney & Co. in light of Lake’s report feels tepid. If ever there were an issue to unite White House-covering reporters in a monotopical inquisitive outrage, it would be this one. We’re talking about the accuracy of information coming from official channels in the aftermath of a deadly attack on key U.S. personnel overseas.
Check out the transcript of Thursday’s press gaggle. It happened on an Air Force One flight to Virginia Beach. At one point, someone notices that the (very routine) political questions posed to Psaki leave Carney out of the mix:
Q: Hey, Jay, are you starting to feel like a bystander in these gaggles?
MR. CARNEY: Not at all. I enjoy listening to my colleague field your questions. It’s most comforting.