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The worst excuse ever: The Rhodes memo debacle

The White House damage control on the latest batch of Benghazi emails is not going well. The White House’s belated release of the documents at the very least show it has been actively evading legitimate congressional requests for relevant information. House Speaker  John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a blistering statement:

Four Americans lost their lives in Benghazi, and this White House has gone to extraordinary lengths to mislead, obstruct, and obscure what actually took place. I am appalled to learn that the administration concealed relevant documents after the House subpoenaed all emails related to the misleading talking points. When four Americans die at the hands of terrorists, the families of the victims – and the American people – deserve the full, unvarnished truth and nothing less. Instead, this White House been callously dismissive of our efforts to get answers… The House has a constitutional obligation to carry out oversight of the administration, and the president has an obligation to cooperate. This evasiveness must end. Our investigation into the events of that September night is going to continue until this White House owns up to the truth – and until these terrorists are brought to justice.

As for the content of the Rhodes email, in a raucous back and forth with ABC News’s Jonathan Karl Jay Carney insisted that the instructions from Ben Rhodes issued on Sept. 14 to prepare then ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to go on multiple Sunday shows to stress the anti-Muslim video and to deny this represented a presidential lapse didn’t refer to Benghazi.

That was too much for a number of news people. Fox News’s Bret Baier remarked:

This was a surreal answer from Jay Carney. Now, this is a prep session with Susan Rice, getting ready for five Sunday talk shows. This is three days after 9/11 when four Americans, including the American ambassador to Libya, are killed. Everybody in the chain has said it’s a terrorist attack, everyone in the chain is saying there’s no protest. And yet this email, if we’re to believe Jay Carney at the White House, had nothing to do with Benghazi. It was more about the broad scope of the region. Now, imagine that. What are they going to ask about on five Sunday talk shows when you have four Americans who were killed just days before? They’re not going to ask about the other protests that didn’t see any Americans killed. They’re going to ask about that. So then he said that the reason they didn’t originally put forward this email to the committee — they eventually got it to the committee redacted — was because it didn’t deal with Benghazi. Now, that really strains credulity, I mean it is really out there.

Jake Tapper was similarly dubious, observing  “The context of Rhodes’ emails is, of course, that President Barack Obama was in the midst of a heated re-election campaign where one of his talking points was that he had brought a steady hand in fighting terrorists, indeed that ‘al Qaeda is on the run.'”

Nor were Republicans on Capitol Hill buying this. In a letter to the speaker retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) stressed:

Mr. Speaker, it is now abundantly clear that senior White House staff were directly involved in coordinating the messaging in response to the Benghazi attacks and were actively working to tie the reason to the infamous Internet video, which they knew from the CIA and others was demonstrably false.  In short, the administration, specifically the White House, lied about a matter with direct bearing on U.S. national security in order to influence an electoral outcome.
In light of these new documents, it is more clear than ever that a House Select Committee is needed to conduct a comprehensive investigation unhindered by jurisdictional barriers, interview all key administration witnesses, including the White House staff identified in these e-mails, and hold public hearings to explain to the American people, once and for all, just what happened that night and in the days and weeks that followed.

In addition to Graham, Republican Senators John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) as well as House majority leader Eric Cantor (Va.) all argued that the Rhodes memo confirmed the effort to push the video narrative for Libya came out of the White House. 

It is hard to believe that this was not a Benghazi-specific document. The White House was being bombarded by questions about the ambassador’s death. There was a ceremony broadcast live on Sept. 14 to meet the incoming caskets of the murdered Americans. And we are to believe the Rhodes memo was about other demonstrations only? Strangely he does not say “This applies to Egypt but not Libya.” To the contrary, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pointed out that the email itself references the desire to get people who harmed Americans; the only Americans harmed — killed — were in Benghazi.

Let’s recall the sequence of events. State Department, CIA officials and reporters have explained that within 24 hours, certainly 48 hours (Sept. 13) the State Department and CIA knew this was a planned terrorist attack. The FBI was already dispatched. A background briefing by the State Department on Sept. 12 reiterated that this was a coordinated attack. The CIA in whatever version of talking points it generated never referred to the video, yet Rhodes made that the entire focus of his narrative. (Rhodes is unlikely to be the author of a story like this. As deputy national security adviser certainly he would have either gotten the word  from on high or conferred with superiors before sending Rice out with a bogus explanation for the deaths of four Americans.)

Now maybe Carney is right and there is a perfectly reasonable explanation here. In that case, Rhodes should tell Congress under oath. He can then tell us how he got the idea the video was the sole explanation for Benghazi. (Rhodes may well be about to shoved under the Obama bus, given that involvement of anyone more senior to him would be hugely problematic for the White House.) By holding back the emails until two weeks ago the White House cements the impression it was trying to hide them from Congress and the public. The way to clear this up is to question the people under oath.

And frankly Hillary Clinton’s supporters should encourage this. The spinning here originated from the White House (and persisted there until Sep. 25). Why should she take the fall for a “cover-up”? To be candid, she may have been responsible for the attack by failure to recognize the massive influx of al-Qaeda into Libya, but it was the White House that clung to the video narrative up through the president’s Sept. 25 speech at the United Nations. What’s the point in protecting aides in a failing presidency if Hillary Clinton’s reputation and potential presidential campaign could be in the balance?