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Newly-released documents reveal direct White House involvement in steering the public narrative about the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, toward that of a spontaneous protest that never happened.
One of the operative documents, which the government had withheld from Congress and reporters for a year and a half, is an internal September 14, 2012 email to White House press officials from Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Assistant and Deputy National Security Advisor. (Disclosure:Ben Rhodes is the brother of David Rhodes, the President of CBS News, where I was employed until March.)
In the email, Ben Rhodes lists as a “goal” the White House desire “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.”
The email is entitled, “RE: PREP CALL with Susan, Saturday at 4:00 pm ET” and refers to White House involvement in preparing then-U.S.Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice for her upcoming appearance on Sunday television network political talk shows.
The Rhodes email states that another “goal” is “To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
A court compelled the release of the documents, which were heavily-redacted, to the conservative watchdog group JudicialWatch, which has sued the government over its failed Freedom of Information responses. I have also requested Benghazi-related documents under Freedom of Information law, but the government has only produced a few pages to date.
Today, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called the Rhodes email the “smoking gun” showing the “political manipulation by the White House” after the attacks.
“The political shop at the White House took over early on,” Graham told me. “They understood it was a terrorist attack, that they had a political problem, and were going to handle it politically. They weren’t going to entertain anything other than what they wanted the public to hear.”
USA Today quotes a spokesman for the White House National Security Council reacting to the Rhodes’ email by stating that it contains general talking points on unrest spreading throughout the region in response to an offensive video, and also made clear that “our primary goals” included the safety of U.S. personnel in the field and bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice.
Since the deadly attacks on the U.S. missions in Benghazi, there have been persistent allegations that the Obama administration developed a false political narrative to downplay or hide the fact that terrorists had struck. The President had campaigned by stating that al Qaeda was “on the run,” and Republicans have argued that news of a terrorist attack eight weeks before the election could have decimated his re-election campaign. Four Americans were killed in the assaults, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
White House officials copied on the Rhodes “goal” email include Press Secretary Jay Carney, then-Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, then-White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe, then-White House Deputy Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri and Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Earnest has failed to respond to more than a year’s worth of my emails and phone calls in my effort to obtain official White House photographs taken the night of the Benghazi attacks. The White House photo office had told me that Earnest’s personal approval was needed for the photos to be released.
Rhodes has emerged as a key figure in the controversy but hasn’t yet been asked to provide testimony to Congress.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told me today that the government apparently tried to keep the Rhodes email out of Congress and the
public’s hands by classifying it after-the-fact.
“They retroactively changed the classification,” Chaffetz says. “That was an unclassified document and they changed it to classified.”
In the past month, the government has supplied 3,200 new Benghazi-related documents under Congressional subpoena. In some instances, Congressional members and their staff are only permitted to see the documents during certain time periods in a review room, and cannot remove them or make copies.
Chaffetz says that the State Department redacted more material on the copies provided to Congress than on those that it was forced to provide to JudicialWatch.
One of the most heavily-redacted email exchanges is entitled, “FOX News: US officials knew Libya attack was terrorism within 24 hours, sources confirm.” The Fox News article was circulated among dozens of officials including Rhodes and then-Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough but the content of their email discussion is hidden.
An internal document provided by the State Department dated Sept. 14, 2012 is titled, “Topline Points” and poses answers to a series of questions apparently in preparation for the briefing to be provided to Ambassador Rice prior to her talk show appearances. The document fails to mention terrorism, although it had been repeated throughout the early versions of the talking points, and many government officials have said that they had already concluded by that time that terrorism was to blame.
“What’s your response to the Independent story that says we have intelligence 48 hours in advance of the Benghazi attack that was ignored?” is one question posed in the briefing memo. The suggested answer: “This story is absolutely wrong. We are nor aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission was planned or imminent. We also see indications that this action was related to the video that has sparked protests in other countries.”
But the final sentence to the answer is expanded and developed in the “PREP CALL with Susan” email from Rhodes at 8:09pm on Friday, September 14, 2012. It adds the phrase “spontaneously inspired” and also refers to the attack as “demonstrations” that “evolved.”
“The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex,” reads the Friday night email from Rhodes to White House press officials.
Obama administration officials have insisted they were acting on “the best intelligence available at the time” and that they clarified the story as they got more information.
But taken as a whole, the documents and testimony revealed since the attacks support the idea that the administration’s avoidance of the word “terrorism” was a strategy rather than an accident or mistake.
White House Involvement
Relatively few documents have been provided that shed light on White House involvement in the post-Benghazi narrative. Previously, emails showed that then-deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, on Rhodes’ behalf, assigned Hillary Clinton-aide Jake Sullivan to work with Deputy Director of the C.I.A. Mike Morell to edit the talking points on Benghazi.
As the various agencies worked to edit and approve the talking points on Sept. 14, Rhodes emailed that there would be a Deputies meeting the next morning to work out the issues. “That’s polite code for let’s not debate this on e-mail for 18 hours,” one official involved told me last year.
Multiple government officials including those in the military, State Department and C.I.A. have stated in documents or under questioning that they immediately believed the attacks, using heavy weaponry and mortar shells, were the work of terrorists. Prior to the attacks, there had been multiple warnings of al Qaeda threats in Libya and, specifically, in Benghazi.
In fact, in an early version of the government’s “talking points,” the C.I.A. stated that it had “produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” and that “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.” The administration later removed these C.I.A. disclosures about the advance warning of a threat.
Morell testified to Congress earlier this month that he, and not the White House, was responsible for making some of the most controversial revisions to the talking points, including removing the language about the advance warnings. Morell has since gone to work as counsel for Beacon Global Strategies, a strategic relations PR firm dominated by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officials and Obama administration officials. (Disclosure: In January, Morell was hired as an analyst for CBS News where I was previously employed.)
Read about Morell’s conflicting stories on the Benghazi talking points
An administration official who asked not to be identified previously told me that “spontaneous” protests was probably not the right word to use in the talking points, but that there was no intent to deceive.
Sen. Graham has a different view.
“They understood it was a terrorist attack, that they had a political problem and they were going to handle it politically. They saw it as a chink in the President’s armor and they tried to repair it,” says Graham.