The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Cummings blasts Politico for running ‘bogus leak’

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack there. (ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/Reuters)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, today ripped the committee and Politico for printing inaccurate portrayals of e-mail traffic between then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in fall 2012, as the administration was facing a backlash over its handling of the Benghazi attacks. “[I]t now appears that someone who was given access to the Select Committee’s documents leaked doctored information to the press in order to make unsubstantiated allegations against Secretary Clinton,“ writes Cummings in a letter to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the select committee’s chairman.

At issue is this June 17 Politico story by staff writers Kenneth Vogel and Rachael Bade, a scoop that detailed the interactions of Clinton helper Sidney Blumenthal, Clinton “enforcer” David Brock and the groups that he (Brock) had founded, including Media Matters for America. Blumenthal, as Politico reported, received more than $10,000 per month from Brock’s groups.” The story relied on “sources” for detailed information on e-mail exchanges among the parties. The background for those exchanges is the political volatility of Benghazi, the Sept. 11, 2012, Libya attacks that claimed the lives of four U.S personnel. Obama administration officials were under scrutiny for not only leaving the U.S diplomatic installation in Benghazi vulnerable, but also for allegedly misleading the U.S. public about the nature of the attack.

Here’s how Politico initially reported an exchange between Blumenthal and Clinton:

“Got all this done. Complete refutation on Libya smear,” Blumenthal wrote to Clinton in an Oct. 10, 2012, email into which he had pasted links to four Media Matters posts criticizing Fox News and Republicans for politicizing the Benghazi attacks and challenging claims of lax security around the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, according to a source who has reviewed the email exchange. Blumenthal signed off the email to Clinton by suggesting that one of her top aides, Philippe Reines, “can circulate these links,” according to the source. Clinton responded: “Thanks. I’m pushing to WH,” according to the source.

But as Cummings notes in his letter, it didn’t go down like that. The “I’m pushing to WH” response actually attaches to a different e-mail correspondence between Clinton and Blumenthal, from a week before Blumenthal’s boast about those Benghazi links. As documents released by the State Department last week show, Clinton was actually intent on sending to the White House a Salon article claiming that the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was planning a brand-new line of attack based on Benghazi.

Cummings rips away, “It appears that this source fed Politico an inaccurate characterization of these emails and that Politico accepted this mischaracterization without obtaining the emails themselves. The source apparently took an email that was produced to the Select Committee in February, isolated Secretary Clinton’s statement about the White House, removed it from the original email exchange about the presidential debates, and then added it to a different email exchange involving Media Matters.” Another point: The Politico story cites a source as saying that the e-mail wasn’t among those turned over by the State Department. Cummings writes that State had passed it along in February.

On the very day that the story hit the Internet, Politico issued a correction to its story, as follows:

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a Clinton email as a response to the Blumenthal email.

The story no longer includes the line from Clinton, “Thanks. I’m pushing to WH.” More detail in the correction, accordingly, might be helpful. It’s unclear from the correction just what changed and how.

In criticizing Politico and the leaky committee, Cummings draws a parallel between this episode and Benghazi’s most famous partial-e-mail controversy. Back in May 2013, Jonathan Karl of ABC News wrote a piece about e-mail exchanges in the upper reaches of the Obama administration regarding Benghazi. Relying on sources to abridge the correspondence, Karl reported that White House aide Ben Rhodes had specifically requested that the views of the State Department be taken into account in drafting talking points on the attacks; the full e-mails later took the air out of that claim.

A famous Bob Woodward episode also highlighted the pitfalls of entrusting others to interpret e-mail messages. According to a Politico story from February 2013, Bob Woodward saw a “veiled threat” in an e-mail from a White House official contesting his conclusions on Obama’s involvement in the federal budget sequester. When the e-mail later surfaced, it didn’t appear too threatening.

Certainly Cummings has every right to denounce this sequence of events. Trusting sources to abridge e-mails is a dicey game — and such correspondence has a gravitational tendency to fall into the public’s hands. The sum total of this error is that Clinton pledged to forward to the White House a Benghazi-related story from Salon, not four such stories from Media Matters. Is that a big deal? Sort of: As the Erik Wemple Blog has written, Media Matters is a 501(c)(3) organization whose tax-exempt status hinges on its adherence to a stated mission of “correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media” — not of assisting a sitting Democratic secretary of state. Portraying Clinton as closing the loop on the work of Media Matters carries an extra pinch of partisan spice.