This may be the most extensive effort by an Obama administration official to account for the process behind the Benghazi talking points — and the internal email traffic about it — that we’ve seen yet.
It comes from Tommy Vietor, who recently stepped down as the spokesman for the National Security Council. He was intimately involved in coordinating the interagency debate over what to say publicly about the attacks, and he was one of the officials on the email chain that has now attracted so much attention.
This morning, Vietor sent out an extensive email to a few of us who had been asking him for an explanation for the evolution of the talking points and the email discussion about it. He says it was not done at the request, or with the permission, of the White House.
I asked his permission to post his email, and he granted it.
Notably, Vietor concedes errors were made in key areas. For instance, he allows that the administration was not clear enough in explaining itself when it came to the claim — since proven false — that only one edit was made to the talking points. He notes that it wasn’t made clear enough that they were referring to the final version of the talking points when claiming a single edit.
Vietor also candidly admits the administration blew it when initially claiming there had been a protest in Benghazi. He says he asked intelligence officials to explain how that happened. The answer: “They told me that there were many different strands of information indicating there was a protest, both open source and intelligence based.”
Two other nuggets worth highlighting: Vietor claims that during private internal debate, a senior CIA official agreed with the State Department’s concern that the now-infamous deleted talking points graf — the one highlighting previous attacks — was unfair to State. If that is so, it supports the notion that the deletion of that graf was more the result of bureaucratic processes designed to get multiple agencies on the same page than it was about anything else.
Vietor also defends the deletion of the reference to Al Qaeda this way: “while it’s true that some of the Benghazi attackers had links to al Qaeda, no one has ever claimed that this was a long-planned AQ operation by Zawahiri or AQ’s leadership like 9/11.”
At any rate, the email is below. Since the interest in every aspect of this story is so intense — and since transparency is at the center of the debate — I’m printing the whole thing:
A number of you have asked me about the Benghazi talking points issue since I’m mentioned in the email traffic. I obviously no longer speak for the White House, and I’m not sending this at their request or with their approval, but I wanted to offer a bit of context given my experience.
As has been reported, after the attacks the House Intelligence Committee requested what was referred to as a “white paper” on Benghazi – essentially unclassified talking points about what had occurred that they could use on TV. So the CIA started working on a document that was responsive to this request.
When Ambassador Rice was going to appear on the Sunday shows, it made sense to provide her the same language that was being produced for the House Intelligence Committee. The shows wanted to interview a foreign policy surrogate the weekend for a number of reasons: 1) to discuss Benghazi and the work of our diplomats abroad, 2) to discuss the protests of the “Innocence of Muslims” video that had inflamed the Arab world, 3) to answer questions about Iran and other issues that might arise from PM Netanyahu’s appearances.
Regarding the talking points, it’s not surprising that the entire government would want the chance to look at and edit that language. This was a dynamic situation and new information was constantly flowing in, and different agencies had important concerns that had to be addressed – the State Department had security concerns, the FBI was worried about its investigation, and the CIA had a major, yet still undisclosed, role.
What most people don’t understand is that purpose of the National Security Council is to coordinate the many national security agencies of the government – in other words to get the State Department, DOD, intelligence community, etc.… into one room to hash out disagreements and make decisions.
That role is actually written into the law that created the NSC:
The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.
The fact that Benghazi would be discussed at an NSC meeting at the White House isn’t scandalous or even surprising – really its just standard operating procedure.
So what happened is that throughout that week, various agencies edited the “white paper” to make sure their concerns were addressed. As has been reported, on Friday the State Department raised some concerns about this graph:
“The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya. These noted that, since April, there have been at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi by unidentified assailants, including the June attack against the British Ambassador’s convoy. We cannot rule out the individuals has previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”
I obviously can’t speak for State, but if you step back, I think it’s reasonable that State would find this language unfair. State employees in Libya didn’t need a CIA threat report to learn about some of these very public incidents.
So again, as has been reported, the issue was tabled for discussion at a Saturday morning interagency meeting. At that meeting, a senior CIA official – an individual whom I will not name but will note is a career official and is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with – agreed with State’s concern and said that he would take the talking points back to his building to edit them. Later that day, the CIA official sent a revised version of the talking points, which the White House edited to change “consulate” to “diplomatic post”.
I think it’s fair to say that we could’ve been clearer that we were referring to this final CIA version of the talking points when we said we made one edit, but the fact that the government edited these points isn’t surprising or at all nefarious – it’s routine.
Different agencies wanted to edit this language for a variety of reasons. Information was flowing in and being analyzed in real time. Some things we learned came from human intelligence sources or intercepted communications, and the intelligence community needed to make sure that what we said publicly didn’t tip off the bad guys or disclose sources and methods. There was also an ongoing investigation and concern about public statements complicating that effort to bring whoever did this to justice.
Some people have understandably asked how we were so wrong about there being a protest. I don’t know. When I was in government, I asked some intelligence officials how it happened. They told me that there were many different strands of information indicating there was a protest, both open source and intelligence based. In fact, a number of news outlets reported there were protests.
Regardless, we got it wrong and we later corrected that error in a statement from the DNI spokesman. But one of the most frustrating parts of this discussion is the degree to which people now dismiss the impact of the Innocence of Muslims video. Our embassies in Cairo, Yemen and Sudan were attacked and seriously damaged. A western restaurant was torched in Lebanon. Dozens of countries experienced protests where scores of people died. Our troops in Afghanistan had to reduce their operational tempo and exposure as a preventative measure. Today, people act like the administration invented the issue. A 30-second scan of headlines from that week shows otherwise:
New York Times: “Anti-American Protests Flare Beyond the Mideast”
Reuters/Associated Press via Haaretz: “Thousands demonstrate across the Muslim world as anti-U.S. protests spread”
Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Missions Stormed in Libya, Egypt”
Associated Press: “Protesters storm U.S. Embassy in Yemen”
USA Today: “Deadly embassy attacks were days in the making”
CBS News: “Protest in Gaza over anti-Muslim movie”
The Atlantic: “Muslim Protests Spread Around the Globe”
Washington Post – “Anti-U.S. protests spread through Muslim world”
Associated Press: “Protests against anti-Islam film erupt across Muslim world”
Some allege that edits were made in an effort to downplay the role of al Qaeda or to try and sell a political narrative of rapidly normalizing ties with Libya. That’s just not true. The administration talked about how al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been decimated, but we were also clear that there was a growing threat from AQAP and other affiliates. Also, while it’s true that some of the Benghazi attackers had links to al Qaeda, no one has ever claimed that this was a long-planned AQ operation by Zawahiri or AQ’s leadership like 9/11.
The charge that there was an administration effort to “sell” a normalization narrative in Libya is nonsensical. There just isn’t a political angle here. No voter went to the polls thinking, I don’t like Obama, but boy we have a much better relationship with Tripoli now than we did a few years ago so he’s getting my vote. It’s just silly.
As the week of September 11, 2012 went on, what consumed the administration was concern about the safety and security of US personnel serving overseas. The protests were expanding geographically and growing in size. Military units were being positioned across the globe to deal with potential evacuations. It was a very, very scary time, especially as we approached Friday prayers on September 14th.
Looking back, maybe there was a time when tragedies like Benghazi brought our country together, but here we’ve seen the opposite. Susan Rice went on TV and offered the consensus US government view of what we thought happened at that time. For that, she was viciously attacked in deeply personal ways. Members of the Senate called her “incompetent” and suggested she was a liar. That’s outrageous.
Imagine if Susan had gone on TV and offered some personal view of what happened or contradicted the intelligence community? She would’ve been charged with manipulating intelligence. The attacks on her have been gratuitous and unfair, and it’s time we start saying as much.
Clearly there was not enough security in Benghazi. The administration should be held accountable for that fact, and we should have a very serious discussion about how to ensure this never happens again. However, this focus on talking points and a Sunday show appearance nine months ago is political, and it has distracted us from focusing on protecting our people.