ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl is helping to promote a dishonest narrative regarding why then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus expressed disapproval for a set of talking points written in response to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Karl's reporting on the issue has ignored the central reason Petraeus said that he didn't like the talking points: he thought they didn't do enough to connect the attacks to demonstrations in Cairo that were triggered by an anti-Islam video. Since right-wing media and Republicans in Congress have spent months accusing the Obama administration of politically-motivated lying for stating that there was a link between the attacks and the video, this point is crucial.
According to CBS News, in a September 15 email, Petraeus wrote that "he doesn't like the talking points and he would 'just assume they not use them... This is not what [Rep.] Ruppersberger asked for. We couldn't even mention the Cairo warning. But it's their call.'"
The "Cairo warning" Petraeus mentioned appears to refer to the following sentence that CBS News reported was added to the original talking points but subsequently removed:
On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy [in Cairo] and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy."
As has been extensively reported, the September demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, were part of a series of global riots and protests in Muslim countries that came in response to increasing awareness of the anti-Islam video. In the days and weeks following the attack, President Obama both referred to the attacks as an "act of terror" and offered criticism of that video for "spark[ing] outrage through the Muslim world."
It was not unreasonable for Petraeus and Obama to cite a link between the attacks and the video - according to the New York Times, the Benghazi attackers told bystanders that "that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video." In fact, the original set of talking points prepared by the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis stated that the attacks "were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."
But in reporting on the same Petraeus email, Karl has left out Petraeus' stated reason for disliking the talking points and in one case allowed his interviewer to suggest that Petraeus actually opposed linking the attacks to the video.
ABC News is falsely suggesting there is a contradiction between the Obama administration removing references to terrorist groups in Libya from talking points about the September 11 attacks on diplomatic facilities in that country and pointing to President Obama's statements that those attacks were an "act of terror."
The original September 14 version of a set of talking points compiled by the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis stated that "Islamic extremists with ties to al Qa'ida participated in the attack," and specifically suggested the involvement of the group Ansar al Sharia. Those specifics were subsequently removed, with the final version of the talking points stating only that "extremists participated" in the attacks.
In closed congressional testimony following his resignation as CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus reportedly said that these specifics had been "removed from the public explanation of the attack immediately after the assault to avoiding alerting the militants that American intelligence and law enforcement agencies were tracking them." Administration officials have also said that there were other intelligence and legal concerns with naming the suspected perpetrators:
"The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack," said a senior official familiar with the drafting of the talking points. "There were legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly."
Some intelligence analysts worried, for instance, that identifying the groups could reveal that American spy services were eavesdropping on the militants -- a fact most insurgents are already aware of. Justice Department lawyers expressed concern about jeopardizing the F.B.I.'s criminal inquiry in the attacks. Other officials voiced concern that making the names public, at least right away, would create a circular reporting loop and hamper efforts to trail the militants.
Indeed, ABC News has reported that in an email in response to the initial talking points, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland "objected to naming the terrorist groups because 'we don't want to prejudice the investigation.'"
By contrast, in his September 12 and September 13 remarks, President Obama described the attacks as an "act of terror," but did not specify who the perpetrators of that act might be. Presumably such comments would not alert the perpetrators that they were being tracked or jeopardize the criminal probe in the same way that the naming of the specific group might.
Despite that clear distinction, ABC Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz and White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl both suggested that the White House is trying to "have it both ways."
ABC News is buying into right-wing scandal mongering over the tragic September 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, with an "exclusive" report that doesn't stand up to minimal scrutiny, with flaws that are being used by the right to call for a major investigation.
The so-called "exclusive" report, posted at ABCNews.com, purports to uncover dramatic new developments in the right wing's Benghazi witch hunt, but in reality it is little more than a rehash of previously covered debates over whose input was given to the early draft of intelligence talking points put together in the early days of the investigation into the attacks. None of this largely rehashed debate disproves what Gen. David Petraeus, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified in November: that the intelligence community signed off on the final draft of the talking points, and that references to terrorist groups in Libya were removed in order to avoid tipping off those groups.
The May 10 ABC News report focuses on the much discussed CIA talking points that were prepared in the days immediately after the September 11, 2012, attack, and which were used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in her appearance on several news programs to discuss those attacks. Nothing in the ABC News report focuses on the actual events of September 11, 2012, only on the editing process of a talking points memo and what information should be made available for public dissemination during an ongoing investigation into a terrorist attack:
ABC News has obtained 12 different versions of the talking points that show they were extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack.
White House emails reviewed by ABC News suggest the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department. The edits included requests from the State Department that references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia be deleted as well references to CIA warnings about terrorist threats in Benghazi in the months preceding the attack.
Karl goes on to explore whether this disproves comments White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made in late November 2012, more than 2 months after the attack, about the role the White House and the State Department played in editing the final version of those talking points; whether the editing process proves that the White House was engaged in an effort to downplay the role of terrorism in its public statements immediately after the attack; and whether the editing process proves that the talking points were scrubbed of references to terror solely for political reasons.
Karl's report feeds into the right-wing conspiracy mongering over the Benghazi attacks and the desperate campaign to fabricate a cover-up. Friday morning, Fox News hosts cited the report as evidence that a major investigation was needed.
Yet Karl's speculation is easily disproved.
The entirety of the ABC News report focuses on emails that lay out the process of drafting the intelligence community's talking points and the debate over whether to include references to terrorist groups, and whether those references were "scrubbed" to cover up failures at the State Department. What Karl doesn't point out is that the former head of the CIA said that this is not the case. After Petraeus gave closed-door testimony before congressional leaders in November, The New York Times reported:
David H. Petraeus, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on Friday that classified intelligence reports revealed that the deadly assault on the American diplomatic mission in Libya was a terrorist attack, but that the administration refrained from saying it suspected that the perpetrators of the attack were Al Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers to avoid tipping off the groups.
Mr. Petraeus, who resigned last week after admitting to an extramarital affair, said the names of groups suspected in the attack -- including Al Qaeda's franchise in North Africa and a local Libyan group, Ansar al-Shariah -- were removed from the public explanation of the attack immediately after the assault to avoiding alerting the militants that American intelligence and law enforcement agencies were tracking them, lawmakers said.
Karl also forwards the notion that the White House was aggressively trying to downplay the role that terrorism played for political reasons while the President was calling the attacks an act of terror at the same time. In his first public comments after the attack, President Obama very clearly referred to the attack as an act of terror. One day later, Obama again referred to the Benghazi attacks as an act of terror. Those comments came September 12 and September 13. Yet Karl implies that edits to a document that were made on September 14, after Obama had already labeled the attack an act of terror, demonstrate that the administration was trying to downplay the role that terror played.
This leaves Karl with the "exclusive" that emails weighing in on early drafts of the talking points amounts to a contradiction with comments Carney made in November:
"Those talking points originated from the intelligence community. They reflect the IC's best assessments of what they thought had happened," Carney told reporters at the White House press briefing on November 28, 2012. "The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word 'consulate' to 'diplomatic facility' because 'consulate' was inaccurate."
But as Carney notes in comments printed at the end of the ABC News report, there has never been a question that multiple agencies had input into the formation of the talking points, which in the end were drafted by the intelligence community:
"The CIA drafted these talking points and redrafted these talking points," Carney said. "The fact that there are inputs is always the case in a process like this, but the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and nonsubstantive. They corrected the description of the building or the facility in Benghazi from consulate to diplomatic facility and the like. And ultimately, this all has been discussed and reviewed and provided in enormous levels of detail by the administration to Congressional investigators, and the attempt to politicize the talking points, again, is part of an effort to, you know, chase after what isn't the substance here."
ABC is left with a major exclusive dissecting the distinction between input and editing.
Media figures are creating false balance in their coverage of the presidential debate by claiming both candidates lied. But the statements from President Obama they are pointing to are true.
John Fund of National Review and Jonathan Karl of ABC News both used factual statements made by President Obama as examples to claim that he "stretched the truth" during the October 3 presidential debate. Fund cited Obama's comments about the power of an advisory board created by the health care reform law, while Karl pointed to Obama's statement that he has proposed a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan. In fact, both statements by President Obama during the debate were true, and have been supported by independent fact-checkers.
As a guest on CBS' Face the Nation Fund claimed "both candidates, I think, told things that stretched the truth." Fund specifically criticized Obama for saying in the debate that the Independent Payments Advisory Board instituted by the health reform law "wasn't going to make any decisions on treatment." According to Fund, that board "has unilateral power, unless Congress overrides it with a supermajority, to basically tell all doctors and hospitals this is how much money you have to treat people. That is incredible power. That is effectively the power to ration health care. So I think the President was stretching the truth in a big part of Obamacare."
During the debate, President Obama disputed Mitt Romney's statement that the health reform law "put in place a board that can tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive." Obama described the advisory board as "a group of health care experts, doctors, et cetera" who work "to figure out, how can we reduce the cost of care in the system overall? ... [W]hat this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, let's use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do."
Obama's description is accurate. The health reform law forbids the board from submitting "any recommendation to ration health care ... or otherwise restrict benefits," and multiple fact-checkers have made clear the board "wouldn't make any health care decisions for individual Americans" and "cannot by law make recommendations about what treatments people get." Instead, according to Politifact, "it would make broad policy decisions that affect Medicare's overall cost."
Last week, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that hinders enforcement of federal light bulb efficiency standards that were signed into law by President Bush in 2007. Conservative media have repeatedly misled consumers about the standards, and now ABC's flagship nightly news program is adding to the misinformation.
On ABC World News, Diane Sawyer called the measure "a small victory ... for those who like their light bulbs the old-fashioned way." Jonathan Karl suggested that the "light bulb ban" would require consumers to buy "new bulbs [that] are funny looking, dimmer and more expensive."
From the September 18 edition of ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour:
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Media figures have claimed that the health care reform bill does not actually reduce the deficit because Congress is "leaving out $208 billion for the Medicare doc fix." However, there is no reason the "doc fix" should be included in the cost of health care reform since the issue predates the health care reform debate and will need to be resolved regardless of health care reform's outcome.
On ABC's World News, senior congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl stated that "Republicans, even those close to Senator [Ted] Kennedy, are not buying" the argument that health care reform should be passed to honor Kennedy's memory, then aired a clip of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) claiming Kennedy "wouldn't want it passed if it wasn't good." But ABC did not note that Kennedy voted by proxy to pass the Senate HELP committee's health care legislation -- a bill Hatch criticized -- and advocated for progressive policies included in the bill, such as universal health care coverage and a public plan.
ABC's Jonathan Karl claimed that if "last night's town hall meeting in Phoenix is any indication" of whether Sen. Ted Kennedy's death will "inspire newfound unity on health care reform," "the answer seems to be no." But the video Karl aired to support his claim was from an August 25 event that occurred before Kennedy's death, not from "last night."
From the August 7th edition of ABC's World News:
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Media figures repeated Sen. Tom Coburn's claim that stimulus funds are being used "to renovate an abandoned train station that hasn't been used in 30 years." But while the station house has long been closed, "[t]he station's platform currently serves more than 80,000 passengers a year," as Coburn's report noted.
Four evening news programs uncritically aired discredited claims Dick Cheney made suggesting that detainees provided information after -- and only after -- "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used.
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Discussing the House vote to levy a 90-percent tax on executive bonuses, NBC, ABC, and Fox News all advanced the false Republican allegation that by passing the recovery bill, Democrats created the right for AIG to pay bonuses. In fact, the bill did not create the right for AIG -- or any company -- to pay bonuses; rather, it restricted the ability of companies receiving TARP money to award bonuses in the future.
On NBC's Nightly News, Chuck Todd reported that President Obama "drew more criticism from Republicans [...] thanks to a new report claiming the stimulus will take years, not months, to improve the economy" and aired a clip of House Minority Leader John Boehner criticizing the stimulus plan. However, Todd did not mention the Democratic leadership's response: that the Congressional Budget Office report ignored faster-moving provisions in the stimulus, creating a "false impression" of the plan's effects.