Scrubbing the Truth From Benghazi

Caught playing politics with tragedy, what's next for the Obama administration and GOP investigators?

AP

"These changes don't resolve all of my issues or those of my building's leadership." With that sentence, one in a series of emails and draft "talking points" leaked to Jonathan Karl of ABC News, the Obama administration was caught playing politics with Benghazi.

Summaries of White House and State Department emails -- some of which were first published by Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard -- also contradict the White House version of events that led to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice misleading the public about the cause of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. installation in Libya.

Where does this all lead?

Politics: It would be naïve to expect any White House to ignore the political implications of a foreign policy crisis occurring two months before a presidential election. But there is a reason why no White House admits to finessing a tragedy: It's unseemly. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland injected politics into the U.S. response to Benghazi when she raised objections to draft "talking points" being prepared for Rice's television appearances.

One paragraph, drafted by the CIA, referenced the agency's warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months prior to the attack, as well as extremists linked to the al-Qaida affiliate Ansar al-Sharia. In an email to officials at the White House and intelligence agencies, Nuland said the information "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned ..."

The paragraph was deleted. The truth was scrubbed.

Nuland still had concerns. "These changes don't resolve all of my issues or those of my buildings (sic) leadership," she wrote.

Did she have good reason to believe that the GOP would demonize her boss, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the building leader)? Yes.

Could she trust the GOP to be fair-minded and understanding? No.

Could Benghazi be a campaign issue if not carefully managed? Yes.

But she and her cohorts in the administration were wrong to let political considerations cloud the public record. For far too long, the White House shied away from calling Benghazi a terrorist attack and stood behind Rice's initial statement that it was inspired by protests over a crude anti-Islamic video.

Credibility: The White House has long maintained that the talking points were drafted almost exclusively by the CIA, a claim that gave cover to both President Obama and his potential successor, Clinton. "Those talking points originated from the intelligence community," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in November, adding that the only editing by the White House or the State Department was to change the word "consulate" to "diplomatic facility."  Nuland's emails prove him wrong.  As I wrote yesterday ("Why Benghazi is a Blow to Obama and Clinton"), Obama has earned the trust of most Americans but credibility is a fragile thing.

Throw Hillary under the bus? In a statement to ABC, Carney notably insulates the West Wing and not the State Department by saying "the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and nonsubstantive." And, with no apparent regard to hypocrisy, Carney criticized the GOP for attempting to "politicize the talking points."

Drip, drip, drip: There is almost certainly more to come. While Karl and Hayes did not disclose their sources, a hallmark of congressional investigations is to leak selected evidence to embarrass the sitting administration. It's a safe bet that these emails, produced voluntarily for Congress by the State Department, were summarized and leaked by Republicans. The Obama White House might want to borrow a page from the scandal-ridden Clinton playbook: Release all Benghazi documents at a time and manner of their choosing, before the GOP does so.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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