Three Lessons from the Benghazi Emails

No one doubted a demonstration, the CIA made the big changes, and Susan Rice got hosed

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Mohammad Hannon / AP

A Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate after an attack that killed four Americans, in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 12, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya.

The 100 pages of emails about Benghazi released by the White House on Tuesday evening provide a fascinating glimpse at the machinations of national security officials working under stress. The exchanges, which hashed out a set of talking points intended for members of Congress to use a few days after the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans, tell us virtually nothing new about the now well-excavated story. But they do underscore a few important points:

No one doubted a demonstration Every version of the talking points–which were first crafted by the CIA–asserted that a demonstration had occurred at the U.S. compound in Benghazi. “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault” on the U.S. facilities, read the talking points. (Those facilities included a State Department post and a nearby CIA annex.) Throughout two days of exchanges that involved the CIA, FBI, State Department, and White House, no one ever challenged that claim, and that language survived to the end, even as many other phrases were deleted. It’s worth remembering that demonstrations against a notorious anti-Islamic amateur film actually had occurred in 20 other countries, a likely source of the early confusion. That undercuts the charge that the Obama administration ginned up a narrative about a nonexistent demonstration in Benghazi for political purposes–namely, to avoid explaining why al Qaeda-affiliated radicals were killing Americans in a country where the president had intervened militarily with apparent success. It is true that the final talking points were stripped of references to al Qaeda. But there may have been a reason for that. Early in the process, on the afternoon of Friday, September 14, the CIA’s general counsel warned colleagues about “express instruction” from law enforcement officials that “in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements about who did this.”

(MORE: Joe Klein: Benghazi and Dick Cheney’s Staggering Lack of Self-Knowledge)

The CIA made the big changes It’s true, as has been widely reported, that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised the strongest objections to the draft talking points. A charitable interpretation is that Nuland objected to CIA language that cast unfair blame on the State Department for inadequate security at a site which mainly conducted CIA business. Less charitable is that Nuland was reflexively covering for her department, and perhaps for her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (although as a former aide to Dick Cheney, Nuland is no Hillaryland footsoldier). Either way, it was the CIA’s deputy director, Michael Morell, who struck language from the talking points which had detailed his agency’s past warnings about growing security threats in Benghazi.  Some press accounts, and skeptical conservatives, focused  on the unhappy reaction to the final product by then-CIA Director David Petraeus, who concluded: “Frankly, I’d just as soon not use this.” But Petraeus’s lone, brief email doesn’t imply he finds the talking points misleading or outright objectionable. Instead, by noting that a senior member of the House committee that requested them will be unsatisfied, he suggests the document has been watered down to the point of uselessness. (“[T]his is certainly not what Vice Chairman [Dutch]  Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” he wrote.) Why Petraeus would not have overruled Morell, however, or overseen the final edits before they were made, remains unclear.

Susan Rice got hosed The emails show that Obama’s United Nations Ambassador played no role in crafting the talking points that she followed when she appeared on five television talk shows on Sunday September 16. Republicans fixated on that notorious day of TV interviews as evidence that Rice was part of an administration effort to cover up the facts about Benghazi. And when it became clear late last year that President Obama was preparing to tap Rice as his next Secretary of State, Republicans cited Rice’s performance that day as grounds for a promised battle against her nomination. Rice ultimately withdrew her name from consideration for the post, although she may wind up with an even more powerful one as a result.

MORE: Obama Tries to Put Benghazi Back on the Fringe