On May 15 the White House released the full email chain regarding the much-discussed Benghazi talking points, and in doing so deflated conservative and Republican allegations that the administration had engineered a politically minded “cover-up” of the circumstances surrounding the September 2012 attack on the diplomatic facility. The release of those talking points was spurred in no small part by separate reports from The Weekly Standard and ABC News that wrongly suggested the White House's overriding concern in editing those talking points was helping the State Department dodge political attacks from Republicans.
Now that the actual emails are in the public record, we can go back and see exactly what errors ABC and The Weekly Standard made that helped lead us to this point.
(For an easier-to-navigate version of the email chain, check out Yahoo News' interactive feature.)
Weekly Standard writer Stephen F. Hayes' article for the May 13 edition of the magazine noted that after the initial draft of the talking points was sent, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland “responded to raise 'serious concerns' about the draft.” Hayes, working primarily off a House GOP report on Benghazi, wrote that Nuland “worried that members of Congress would use the talking points to criticize the State Department for 'not paying attention to Agency warnings.'” That was, we now know, an incomplete description of Nuland's email, and made it seem as though her only concern was protecting that State Department from political attacks.
The full email, sent at 7:39 p.m. on September 14, shows that Nuland, after speaking with CIA officials, was concerned that members of Congress would publicly link the Benghazi attack to specific terrorist groups even though the agencies themselves weren't affirmatively making those links to avoid tainting the investigation:
On that basis, I have serious concerns about all the parts highlighted below, and arming members of Congress to start making assertions to the media that we ourselves are not making because we don't want to prejudice the investigation.
In that same vein, why do we want Hill to be fingering Ansar al Sharia, when we aren't going that ourselves until we have investigation results... and the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why we want to feed that either? Concerned...
Having wrongly set up the State Department's concerns as being solely political in nature, Hayes went on to portray the White House as prioritizing those concerns:
In an attempt to address those concerns, CIA officials cut all references to Ansar al Sharia and made minor tweaks. But in a follow-up email at 9:24 p.m., Nuland wrote that the problem remained and that her superiors -- she did not say which ones -- were unhappy. The changes, she wrote, did not “resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership,” and State Department leadership was contacting National Security Council officials directly. Moments later, according to the House report, “White House officials responded by stating that the State Department's concerns would have to be taken into account.” One official -- Ben Rhodes, The Weekly Standard is told, a top adviser to President Obama on national security and foreign policy -- further advised the group that the issues would be resolved in a meeting of top administration officials the following morning at the White House.
Again, the actual emails reveal that Hayes constructed this narrative using incomplete information. The White House did note the State Department's concerns, but in conjunction with those of the Justice Department and other entities. If anything, the emails show the White House prioritized the integrity of the Benghazi investigation.
The House report's assertion, quoted by Hayes, that “White House officials responded by stating that the State Department's concerns would have to be taken into account” is misleading. The FBI press office responded to Nuland's email at 9:19 p.m., indicating that the bureau had “concerns” over the talking points and asked if the Justice Department had provided input given that they “will have to deal with the the [sic] prosecution and related legal matters surrounding the federal investigation.” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor responded a few minutes later: “Given the DOJ equities and States [sic] desire to run some traps, safe to assume we can hold on this until tomorrow?”
Shortly after, White House deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes responded: “Sorry to be late to this discussion. We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” [emphasis added]
In a follow-up article for the May 20 edition of The Weekly Standard, Hayes kept pushing the idea that Nuland's concern was solely political, and misrepresented an email to UN ambassador Susan Rice to make the argument that the talking points were edited to reflect that concern. The National Security Council Deputies Committee met on September 15 to work out the various agencies' issues with the Benghazi talking points, and a summary of that meeting was emailed to Rice.
Here's how Hayes described that email:
The proceedings were summarized in an email to U.N. ambassador Rice shortly after the meeting ended. The subject line read: “SVTS on Movie/Protests/violence.” The name of the sender is redacted, but whoever it was had an email address suggesting a job working for the United States at the United Nations.
According to the email, several officials in the meeting shared the concern of Nuland, who was not part of the deliberations, that the CIA's talking points might lead to criticism that the State Department had ignored the CIA's warning about an attack. Mike Morell, deputy director of the CIA, agreed to work with Jake Sullivan and Rhodes to edit the talking points. At the time, Sullivan was deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department's director of policy planning; he is now the top national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Denis McDonough, then a top national security adviser to Obama and now his chief of staff, deferred on Rhodes's behalf to Sullivan. [emphasis added]
The email doesn't actually say that -- rather, it indicates that the concern was that the initial draft would lead readers to “infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy.” It makes no mention of perceived criticism of the State Department.
HPSCI [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] request: Late this week, CIA Director Petraeus gave the HPSCI a “hots [sic] spots” briefing and was asked for unclassified talking points that its members could use about the incident in Benghazi. (Apparently NCTC Director Matt Olson received a similar committee [sic] from a congressional committee.) The first draft apparently seemed unsuitable (based on conversations on the SVTS and afterwards) because they seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy. On SVTS, Morell noted that these points were not good and he had taken a heavy editing hand to them. He noted that he would be happy to work with Jake Sullivan and Rhodes to develop appropriate talking points. McDonough, on Rhodes's behalf, deferred to Sullivan. It was agreed that Jake would work closely with the intelligence community (within a small group) to finalize points on Saturday that could be shared with HPSCI. I spoke to Jake immediately after the SVTS and noted that you were doing the Sunday morning shows and would need to be aware of the final posture that these points took. He committed to ensure that we were updated in advance of the Sunday shows. I specifically mentioned [REDACTED] as the one coordinating your preparations for the shows and also strongly encouraged him to loop in [REDACTED] during the process.[emphasis added]
The idea that Nuland's overriding concern was political -- and that her concern was shared by the White House -- is key to the notion of a “cover-up” by the administration. Hayes' articles came to that assumption based on incomplete information and misrepresentation of emails between agencies.
ABC News chief White House correspondent Jon Karl's May 10 “exclusive” on the Benghazi emails has already been dismantled several times over, most prominently by CNN's Jake Tapper, who obtained the actual email from Ben Rhodes that Karl wrongly portrayed as prioritizing the State Department's concerns with the talking points. Karl, despite ABC's implications to the contrary, had not actually seen Rhodes' email before reporting on it, and instead had relied on the “detailed notes” of an unnamed source who misrepresented its contents.
Responding to Tapper's report, Karl passed along his source's explanation for the discrepancy: “WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.” The full email chain shows that this is also a lie. The correspondence included emails from the FBI, references to Justice Department concerns, and an email from Vietor explicitly referencing “DOJ equities” as something that would have to be resolved. Rhodes' email referencing “all of the relevant equities” came in response to Vietor's message.
Karl's source was wrong and misrepresented the email chain to him twice. Karl took the source at their word, and got burned for it.