If one theme came out of Wednesday’s hearings, it was that senior political officials were all too eager to escape blame for the Benghazi attacks, leaving permanent Foreign Service officials holding the bag. The latest attempt to repeat this theme involves a 30-year Foreign Service official, Victoria Nuland, who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, including as deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
A summary of e-mail exchanges involving her has circulated to news outlets, and it places her, falsely, in the thick of the controversy about the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice eventually used on the Sunday shows.
Senior State Department officials familiar with the e-mails and the sequence of events tell me how things transpired following the attack:
On Wednesday, Sept. 12, reporters were given a State Department background briefing on Benghazi, laying out the sequence of events on the ground with no mention of any spontaneous demonstration. The department held no on-the-record briefing that day or the next. The feeling “inside” the building was that this was an organized terrorist attack, the officials say, but at this point the State Department could comment only that, lacking confirmation from the CIA, the matter was under investigation.
On Friday evening, Sept. 14, according to the officials, Nuland received an e-mail from the White House with talking points from the CIA. CIA Director David Petraeus had gone to Capitol Hill to brief members, and he was asked to provide talking points so that the lawmakers could have something to say publicly. He agreed; the document sent to Nuland was a response to that request. When she received the document, though, she had no idea what the talking points were for; they were much more detailed than anything State had been authorized to give out. She responded almost immediately to ask for clarification.
Once it was explained that these were for lawmakers who had been briefed by Petraeus earlier in the day and needed direction as to what they could say publicly, she raised two issues. She asked why the administration was giving talking points to Congress (including mention of the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia) “to start making assertions to the media we ourselves are not making because we do not want to prejudice the investigation.”
Second, the document included a list of so-called “warnings” by the CIA (which were generic and not specific to any imminent threat in Benghazi). This, Nuland responded, might have led Congress to conclude that State had ignored these danger signs, thus encouraging finger-pointing before the investigation was complete.
This, by the way, gets to the heart of the matter involving Benghazi. It was primarily a CIA operation, as others have reported. If there really were warnings, why had the CIA’s station chief not been alerted? Why was its men in peril? It is not atypical for the CIA to point fingers at other agencies, but it was particularly jarring when their own personnel were victimized.
A redraft of the talking points came back without mention of Ansar al-Sharia. But CIA wasn’t giving up on its CYA quite yet and left in the misleading mention of warnings. At this point, Nuland threw up her hands, e-mailing that this version did not address concerns in her “building.” (This was meant to convey the concern that her department was being singled out inaccurately and unfairly by the CIA.) She urged this should be taken up in a policy meeting. That was the last of her involvement.
It is noteworthy that Susan Rice was not in the picture at this point and had not yet been selected to go on that Sunday’s talk shows. One can imagine that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t want to go anywhere near talking points that presented a very different view than State’s sense that this was, in fact, a planned attack.
It is noteworthy that those involved in Friday night’s e-mail exchange were all communications people; no political figures and no policy makers. It is not the communications people who bear any responsibility for the scrubbing that went on over the weekend. In my own reporting, I have previously noted that Nuland studiously refused to confirm the “video made them do it” story line or the spontaneous demonstration cover story coming out of the White House. The difference between what she was saying (it’s under investigation, we don’t know, ask the White House) was noticeably different from what we heard coming from the White House, which perpetuated the video narrative again and again.
It’s inviting to blame the State Department spokeswoman. But whatever Hillary Clinton did or didn’t do (including dispatching chief of staff Cheryl Mills) happened after that Friday night. Isn’t it time to get those deputies, Petraeus and Clinton herself back to testify? If nothing else, it is time to stop blaming the little people.