ABC's Jonathan Karl And The Proof The White House Memo Wasn't Just About Benghazi

Jonathan KarlABC's Jonathan Karl, who was previously burned when he pushed falsehoods about CIA talking points generated in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, is now adopting the conservative distortion of a separate set of talking points authored by the White House for media appearances by then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

On September 16, 2012, Rice appeared on the Sunday political talk shows and suggested that the Benghazi terror attacks had grown out of spontaneous protests like those that were occurring worldwide in response to an anti-Muslim video. Conservatives have claimed that Rice's comments on the Sunday shows were part of a deliberate effort to deceive the American people about the cause of the terror attacks, to bolster President Obama's re-election campaign. This effort has often involved distorting the CIA-approved talking points that Rice used to prepare for the interviews.

Karl came under fire in May 2013 after reporting that the network had “reviewed” emails from administration officials regarding the creation and editing of those CIA-generated talking points. While nothing Karl reported undermined assertions from the CIA that the intelligence community had approved those talking points, Karl suggested that the emails bolstered the conservative critique of the administration's response.

In fact, Karl had never seen the emails in question -- his story was based on “summaries” of the emails and “detailed notes” from a source who, it turned out, had misrepresented what the documents actually said. After media observers slammed Karl's “sloppy” reporting, ABC News issued a statement saying that the network “should have been more precise in its sourcing of those quotes, attributing them to handwritten copies of the emails taken by a Congressional source. We regret that error.” Karl himself apologized in a statement to CNN.

Now Karl is returning to the subject of talking points used to prepare Rice for those September 16, 2012, interviews, seizing on a separate email authored by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that was released yesterday. The email details “Goals” and “Top-lines” for Rice's interviews and provides sample questions and answers.

Conservatives have fixated on one of Rhodes' recommendations for the interviews, detailing one of the goals as “To underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video and not a broader failure of policy.” Conservatives claim this is evidence the White House was seeking to deliberately mislead the public by blaming Benghazi on the anti-Muslim video rather than terrorism in the region.

In what Mediaite described as a “heated back and forth” during the April 30 White House Press Briefing, Karl hyped this false attack, repeatedly challenging White House Press Secretary Jay Carney over the Rhodes email and Rice's interviews.

During their exchange, Carney sought to make clear that the Rhodes email was not just about the Benghazi attacks but was a more extensive document detailing the situation in the Middle East more broadly, and thus that the comment that “these protests are rooted in an internet video” was not about Benghazi specifically. According to Carney, Rice depended on the CIA talking points for information on Benghazi and the White House talking points for other topics.

Conservative media have been quick to use the exchange to attack Carney and the White House. But the White House documents upon which Karl based his misleading questions support Carney's argument.

Promos For The Sunday Shows Suggested The Interviews Would Cover The Middle East Broadly

During his exchange with Carney, Karl said, “you knew full well that these Sunday show appearances were going to be dominated by the attack in Benghazi, right? As they were.” Karl's question suggested that the reference to “protests... rooted in an internet video” had to have been specifically about Benghazi.

Carney responded by noting that ABC's own promo for their interview with Rice had highlighted “American embassies throughout the region [that] remain under fire.” He went on to say that Q and As like the one produced by Rhodes are always based on “what we think they're going to be asked.”

The White House documents upon which Karl relies supports this claim. Rhodes' email came in response to an email from a White House communications staffer providing the promos each network show was using to promote their Rice interviews. Three of the promos mentioned the Benghazi attacks in the broader context of anti-U.S. protests in the Middle East; the fourth did not mention Benghazi at all.

Promo email

Rhodes Email Devoted Little Attention To Benghazi

During the exchange with Karl, Carney explained of the Rhodes email:

If you look at that document, that document that we're talking about today was about the overall environment in the Muslim world -- the protests outside of Khartoum -- the embassy in Khartoum, outside of the embassy in Tunis, the protests outside of the embassy in Cairo. These were big stories. These were -- this was a big problem. And this was an ongoing story through that weekend when Ambassador Rice appeared on the Sunday shows. So to suggest that we wouldn't have answers to questions about those situations -- and unless you're telling me now that those protests didn't have anything to do with the video, it was entirely appropriate to have a question-and-answer document prepared for the video.

Indeed, when the email was sent, there were global anti-American protests in response to the video, often violent, many of which targeted U.S. diplomatic security posts, including in Egypt, Indonesia, Qatar, Pakistan, Sudan, Bangladesh, and Yemen.

Rhodes' email covers a lot of ground, and largely discusses broader Middle East issues rather than Benghazi specifically. None of the four “Goals” or six “Top-lines” in the email mention Benghazi specifically.

There are only two direct references to Benghazi in the email.

In response the sample question “Are you concerned that our relationship with Egypt and other Muslim Countries is quickly deteriorating? Is the Arab Spring now about hatred of America? Did President Obama lost the Arab World?” Rhodes provides a five paragraph sample answer that references the “full cooperation” that the United States has received from the Libyan government in the wake of the Benghazi attack.

The sole sample answer directly about Benghazi does not deal with the causes or identity of the attackers, but rather notes that there was no “actionable intelligence” leading up to the terror attack.

The Material On Benghazi Was Based On The CIA's Assessment Of The Attacks

In response to Karl's claim that the Rhodes email was Rice's “prep for the Sunday shows,” Carney said that “It wasn't her only prep... she relied for her answers on Benghazi on the document provided by the CIA, as did members of Congress.”

Indeed, the only substantive information specifically about Benghazi in the Rhodes email was the response to the question about actionable intelligence, which stated that “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 US Consulate and subsequently its annex.” 

That language is identical to the initial draft of the separate CIA talking points that were being crafted by CIA analysts earlier that day, suggesting that Rhodes had seen that early document and was using it to ensure the administration's statements were consistent with the intelligence community's conclusions.