The White House is under siege these days about the e-mail from deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes stressing that Susan Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, should focus on an anti-Islamic video that was said to be the catalyst for an attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the deaths of four Americans, including an ambassador.
Unfortunately, the White House is putting out conflicting explanations. White House spokesman Jay Carney said this wasn’t about Benghazi at all. The National Security Council put out a statement saying the problem was the e-mail represented what they knew at the time to be true (“reflects what the administration was saying at the time and what we understood to be the facts at the time”). In other words, yes it is about Benghazi but it’s all about fog of war. So which is it?
Carney’s explanation has generated eye-rolling from the media, in part because, as Ed Henry pointed out in the briefing room today, the document was turned over as a result of a lawsuit seeking Benghazi documents. Moreover, it seems inconceivable that Rhodes was briefing Rice on everything but the most important issue of the moment, the deaths of four Americans, and ensuing inquires in the middle of a campaign. How was Rice supposed to know the memo was about everything but what she was going to be grilled about on the Sunday shows?
Perhaps sensing Carney’s explanation was too unbelievable even for the broadcast networks and MSNBC, the NSC went in a different direction. This, however, gets back to the same problem the president and other high officials had: Who was telling them it was about a video? The CIA didn’t raise it in the original or edited talking points massaged by the CIA’s Mike Morrell. It wasn’t coming from the State Department. Two days earlier State, in the background record briefing, laid out the facts in what was a coordinated attack and left out anything about the video. Unlike Carney, the State Department spokeswoman never adopted the video as the explanation in any of her daily briefings.
Was the White House out of the loop then? Confused? The NSC is where foreign policy, intelligence, etc., get put together, where the White House can keep track of national security appointees and make sense of what they are all saying. Was Rhodes preoccupied and mushing the two events (Egypt and Benghazi) together? Hmm, that would make Rhodes the culprit and the fall guy. You don’t think. . . . Well, the way to answer all these questions is to put people under oath. Congress can ask:
- Why did the State Department know it was not about a video and Rhodes didn’t?
- Who told Rhodes the attack was spurred by the video?
- Did someone tell Rhodes to get Rice to stress the video and not to let the incident reflect on the president’s foreign policy?
- Was there a separate memo to Rice on just Benghazi if the e-mail just released wasn’t about Benghazi?
- Was the murder of a U.S. ambassador, the first in 30 years, the most important issue the White House was coping with at that time?
- Did Rhodes understand Rice would be asked about Benghazi?
- With whom did Rhodes communicate about the e-mail and the emphasis on the video?
- From reading the e-mail, how was Rice or anyone else on the chain to know Rhodes was referring to Egypt and not the incident that resulted in the deaths of four Americans?
- If the e-mail is not about Benghazi why does it reference harm to Americans?
- Why did the White House choose Rice, who had no operational responsibility and no particular expertise, to go on all the Sunday shows?
If the White House has a single, consistent and rational explanation for all this, Rhodes could certainly provide it. By the way where is he? Let Rhodes speak! At the very least, he deserves the chance to defend himself from accusations that he was helping to create a cover-up or was behind the curve on the biggest foreign policy crisis the administration had faced.
UPDATE: A staffer with the Republican Policy Committee also points out that the e-mail chain contains specific references to Benghazi — the announced topic for the Sunday morning shows. Moreover, Rhodes himself warned Rice she should be prepared to address “the Benghazi” attack. No wonder the NRC came up with a different explanation than Carney’s. The memo most certainly pertained to Benghazi.